nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 12, 2007
The playwright (Leslie Bramm), the director (Pamela Butler), the leading man (Jack Halpin), and the leading lady (Sara Thigpen) of Marvelous Shrine are all FringeNYC vets, many times over each; they're all at peak form in this gripping, moving new play about family, values, and family values in contemporary America. But it was the newcomer in the company—a remarkable young actor named Paul Hufker from St. Louis—who really riveted my attention. See this play because it's pertinent and smart; see it because it showcases some of indie theater's finest talents, or see it to catch a hot new performer on his way up: just see it.
Marvelous Shrine takes place somewhere in America in 1994. Peter McNaughtin is a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, separated from his wife Bobbie, a socialite/charity worker. Their only son, Peter, Jr. (just "Junior" to his Dad; "Marvelous" to his Mom), is 17 and in a heap of trouble. He's facing expulsion from school on the eve of a championship race that could bring him a college scholarship; he's also just announced that he wants to have a sex change operation. Mom tolerates and coddles him as she organizes a MADD charity event whilst sipping vodka martinis; Dad offers a brand of tough love, ordering Junior to shape up while building him a shrine, comprised of old running trophies and other memorabilia, atop the grill in the backyard.
Junior, it would seem, has no choice but to act out. What's really going on with this passionate young man is sexual confusion (he's pretty sure he's gay) and a desire to figure out what he really wants from life (probably a career in music: he's rooted in the grunge rock movement, especially the works of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love). When Cobain kills himself, Junior moves into a new place; events push forward irrevocably with a frightening assist from (well-meaning?) Dad. Tragedy, in the midst of aggressive satire, ensues.
Bramm deftly balances a deeply-felt family drama with significant political content here: Marvelous Shrine is as much about the dissolution of a traditional American family as it is about the recent apparent derailment of the American Dream. The strong, believable characters that Bramm and his collaborators create here make the rotten core that Bramm exposes really sting, really sear. When Thigpen's Bobbie McNaughtin realizes that she has lost her son, at least figuratively, to an ideal that she never believed in and is pretty sure doesn't even exist, her pain is palpable. When Halpin's C.P.O. McNaughtin weighs the loss of a son with honor against the absence of a son forever, it's impossible not to experience at least a tug on the heart.
But it's in Hufker's mercurial, questing, damaged Marvelous that the soul of this play resides. He captures the angst of youth, sure; but what he also shows us here, via Bramm's poetic speeches, is the turmoil of a genuinely lost generation.
Butler's direction serves this resonant play well. A bit of tightening might be in order; but this play deserves a life after FringeNYC and I hope that it gets one.