Grace Gummer and Mia Sinclair Jenness




by Brian Scott Lipton


Do we direct the course our own life or does life merely happen to us? That’s the major existential question faced by the title character of Mary Page Marlowe, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts’ fascinating and slightly frustrating Chinese puzzle of a play, getting a spiffy New York premiere at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater. And perhaps to no one’s surprise, Letts never gives the audience a definitive answer —nor does he provide one for Mary, whom we see at 11 different moments of her life (ranging from infancy to near-death at age 69).

In part, that’s because Mary answers that seminal question differently (tacitly or otherwise) almost every time we see her. When exactly that time is, however, isn’t always clear, as the play constantly toggles back and forth in chronology throughout its 90 minutes, sometimes leaving the viewer unsure where and when we are in Mary’s journey. (The ever-changing set by Laura Jellinek and appropriate period costumes by Kate Voyce do give us some hints.)

A Midwestern accountant who more than once claims to be “an unremarkable person,” Mary is alternately strong-willed and weak, hopeful and despondent, loving and destructive (not to mention self-destructive). She may indeed be an “everywoman” of sorts, and many women in the audience will identify with her. Still, one hopes her life is not the same as every woman who must watch her many tragedies and traumas unfold.


Blair Brown and Brian Kerwin


Like many people as well, it is only as life is coming to a close—a scene that shockingly happens midway through the play—that Mary Page makes a certain amount of peace with her past (while still withholding a vital piece of information from the nurse tending to her): “No regrets? I didn’t say that. Couple of doozies. But who doesn’t? Who wouldn’t do some things different if they could? It takes such a long time to figure some things out.”

While this sentiment may sound banal on paper, it’s not when spoken by the always wonderful Blair Brown (using her signature dry wit mixed with just the right jigger of vulnerability), one of six excellent actresses who take on the role of Mary. Without question, it is a tribute to director Lila Neugebauer that each of these ladies not only make an individual mark but add up to a cohesive whole.

As the 12-year-old Mary, trying to once more placate her bitter, alcoholic mother (a fine Grace Gummer), Mia Sinclair Jenness pierces your heart, while the luminous Emma Geer as the college-aged Mary precisely captures the time when everything seems both possible and slightly terrifying. Meanwhile, Emmy Award winner Tatiana Maslany, in a most auspicious Off-Broadway debut, strikes gold in both of her pivotal scenes: as a free-spirited 27-year-old trying to navigate a no-strings affair with her slimy boss (a pitch-perfect Gary Wilmes) and a troubled 36-year-old doing battle with herself and her inquisitive shrink (an excellent Marcia DeBonis).

Equally excellent are the devastatingly authentic Susan Pourfar as a mother who must face (not always gracefully) two of the bitterest things that can happen to any parent, and Kellie Overbey, who makes a three-course meal out of her one scene as the 50-year-old Mary, who is making the first step towards accepting responsibility for her life, even as her self-centered second husband Ray (David Aaron Baker) mercilessly berates her.


Kayli Carter, Ryan Foust, Susan Pourfar


Indeed, by and large, the men in Mary Page Marlowe don’t come off overly well, although Mary’s kind third husband Andy (nicely played by Brian Kerwin) and Ben, a solicitous dry cleaner (Elliot Villar) balance the scales. Most intriguingly, the man most discussed in the play, Mary’s first husband, Sonny, never even appears.

Of course, we don’t know that we won’t see him until the final blackout (which, as staged here, comes at a seemingly unexpected time)—and only then, do we realize how much we wanted to meet him. Moreover, as the cast take their bows, we realize how much we want to see more of Mary Page’s life—even though we realize doing so won’t necessarily make all the puzzle pieces fit. As Mary Page admits (speaking of her work): “Sometimes it all comes together. All the numbers add up. But no, the numbers do not always add up.”


Mary Page Marlowe. Through August 12 at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West 43rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues).


Photos: Joan Marcus