Marie and Bruce
Written by Wallace Shawn
Directed by Scott Elliott
The titular couple fidgets in bed on a hot summer morning, she wide awake while he snores and audience members reach their seats. "I'll tell you frankly," Marie says, addressing us, "I'm fed up with this god damned fucking incredible pig." And as Bruce wakes, "You god damned cheap god damned idiotic pig, you shit. Now go back to sleep." Many such lines in Wallace Shawn
's 1978 domestic drama Marie and Bruce
—currently in a gradually enveloping revival by the New Group
(through May 7)—seem to call for hysterical screams, but Marisa Tomei delivers them in a quick, bubbling, almost playful tone, as though she's been saying these things for years and conceives of them as lyrics rather than insults. They mostly bounce off her sheepishly civil, rubber-faced husband (Frank Whaley).
That first scene's expository stiffness disappears in the very evocative dinner party that takes up the play's broad mid-section. There, Bruce chats (and maybe more) with former flames while Marie sits through rants and arguments as the group gets drunker—the dizzying din of drinks and chatter amplified by Derek McLane's rotating dinner table set. Two quasi-Warholian portraits of Frank, the evening's host, hang above the table, though Adam Trese never musters the pomposity to match them. The actors raise and lower their voices to shift our focus from one pair to the next, like an approximation of Robert Altman's way of zooming in on one corner of a noisy scene. The self-absorbed yuppie set's dialog is deliberately mundane, though director Scott Elliott keeps his cast from veering into parody, which would do great disservice to Shawn's subtly off-kilter language. In an especially tongue-twisting passage Ann (Cindy Katz) articulates how they've all become insulated from any emotional honesty by substances and social codes. Of course none of them understands her. Tomei and Whaley both nail vivid monologues that bookend the party, flying into lush, sensual details recounting surreal experiences en route to Frank's.
The third and final scene brings the bickering pair to a busy late-night diner where their weirdly affected mannerisms seem arcane compared to a scatological conversation between two black men at the next table. Marie finally pushes her pathetic husband past his own bumbling platitudes, and both have their saddest, truest moments in the closing minutes, as if the whole play had been chipping away at their veneer of numbed, self-pitying misery. Shawn's script stands in sharp contrast to the often over-earnest characterizations of contemporary American playwrights, but this strong cast—especially its superb leads—handles the strange patterns of repetitions and total excess of words well.
(Photo: Monique Carboni)