nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
June 2, 2007
There are those who cannot accept life as it is dealt. They hide in plain sight or behind closed doors. They use silence as a defense or attack by being bossy, mean, and petty. All of this leads to the wonderful business of conflict in Crazy Mary, A.R. Gurney's new play now running at Playwrights Horizons.
The play focuses on cousins Lydia and Mary, bluebloods whose childhood involved property, servants, governesses, and money. Lydia, now a single working mother with an overbearing personality, tries to perpetuate this heritage, even though she has neither the money nor the accoutrements to feed it. Mary has all the money, but resides in a psychiatric asylum reserved for the wealthy, a place with few patients and dwindling financial resources. The cousins have not seen each other for 30 years. In fact, no one has come to see Mary. But the death of Lydia's father gives her the new responsibility of managing Mary's fortune. As the play opens, Lydia shows up at the institution with her caustic, college-aged son, Skip, to verify that Mary is still alive and to see how the money is being spent—as she could use a bit of it herself. Lydia treats everyone as if they were part of her imaginary estate, alienating everyone including her son, Skip, who wants to drop out of Harvard and definitely does not want to pursue the MBA that Lydia has in mind for him. They meet Jerome, the psychiatrist, and Pearl, a caregiver. They also meet an unresponsive, clean, but disheveled Mary.
How sad to see mistakes repeat themselves from generation to generation. Mary, who suffered a nervous breakdown after her family broke off her affair with the gardener, was shipped off to the asylum. Lydia also "crossed main street" by marrying and subsequently divorcing a Polish man. Skip, too, wants to follow his heart by becoming a landscaper, but his mother doesn't hear him. It is to Gurney's credit that he does not take the easy, and, I thought, predictable plot turns.
Jim Simpson directs with pace, and lends a cohesive feel to the whole production. The cast is very good. Sigourney Weaver plays Lydia, who wants what she wants when she wants it. Weaver inhabits this role easily, and never needs to raise her voice for emphasis. When she draws up a chair to chat with the psychiatrist, she places the chair at a sufficient distance to indicate just how intimate the conversation will be. Yet, for all the armor, Weaver reveals Lydia's vulnerability when she sees Mary after all these years. At this first meeting, hopes rise for an elusive panacea to Lydia's bitterness, Mary's loneliness, and Skip's release from his mother's grip. But, it is only the beginning of new challenges.
Mary, played by Kristine Nielsen, is no less commanding. She wrenches control from Lydia first through her silence and then through her relationship with Skip. She does this with subtlety and credibility. As the playwright indicates, the two women "aren't that different. They are both leftovers from another life."
Fighting for his own life is Skip, portrayed by Michael Esper in a finely-tuned and nuanced performance. Though the character describes himself as a "compulsive wise-guy," he is the play's truth-teller. He is alternately caustic and witty, sad and vulnerable, and he shows the joy that comes with knowing he has made a difference in someone else's life. Esper is the standout performer here, converting moments that could be predictable and trite to poignant and meaningful, as when he says goodbye to Mary. Mitchell Greenberg, as the psychiatrist, delivers a professional so casual as to resemble Larry David without the ego. It proves a nice contrast to the various personalities vying to dominate. Myra Lucretia Taylor rounds out the cast as the protective, highly likeable caregiver, Pearl, delivering a wholehearted, if not a little too fervent, performance.
John Lee Beatty's set is exact in its definition of a manor house converted into an institution for the wealthy. The elegant architecture (ionic pillars) and serviceable furniture (cart table and an institutional couch) juxtapose nicely. Claudia Brown's costumes reveal a lot about the characters. Brian Aldous and Jill BC DuBoff designed effective lighting and sound, respectively. And, Michael Holland created original music that fit.