By Ron Fassler
According to the program notes, The Mad Ones are “a New York City-based company that creates ensemble-driven work through the ongoing collaboration of co-Artistic Directors Mark Bovino (writer/performer), Joe Canutte (writer/performer), Stephanie Wright Thompson (writer/performer), Associate Director Michael Dalto (writer/performer/music director) and Lila Neugebauer (writer/director).” Now under the direction of Neugebauer (who is not an actor), the other four have come together to take part as the cast of a new play titled Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie. Rounding out the ensemble are four additional company members; Phillip James Brannon, Brad Heberlee, Carmen M. Herlihy and January LaVoy, who have taken authorship credit. This is one very talented group of people. Their performances are all precise, honest and smart. Under Neugebauer’s direction (she of such exceptional recent productions as Off-Broadway’s award winning The Wolves, and this season’s Broadway revival of The Waverly Gallery), it is evident that a flawless ensemble is at work.
Only one problem: there is no play here.
I wish I could report otherwise, as it pains me to say it, but this is one of those experiences where you spend ninety intermission-less minutes trying to figure out when what you are watching will catch fire (even a little smoke would be welcome). Then, when it ends, with the lights blacking out by the flick of a switch, you’re left with a condescending feeling of “Okay, we’re done here, folks—you can go home now,” leaving you not only puzzled, but slightly infuriated. If that’s the intention, then bravo and well done, but I don’t think that’s the case. As a theatergoer, I’m always open to fresh new ways of storytelling and am one hundred percent behind experimentation. Still, I like to put my trust in Shakespeare who said it best hundreds of years ago: “the play’s the thing.” If all that is being offered is an experience, sans any genuine conflict, then what should have been theater is merely an exercise. What should have drawn you in, leaves you out in the cold.
The setting for the “play” (by way of a well-executed design by You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek), is a room at the local American Union Community Hall in some unnamed city back in the early 1970s (we know this by the fashions and hairstyles, and by the now antiquated enormous cassette tape recorder that sits atop the round table, where the six participants are seated for the majority of the evening). It is as if we are behind the two-way mirror, present for the full length, real-time focus group that has been brought together to view two spin-off pilots of a then-popular children’s TV program called “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie.” We get their opinions on Mrs. Murray, the live actors who take part in the Mister Rogers-style show, and—naturally—the puppets, who are a major part of the TV series. The characters consist of six disparate types of average working class people. But we never get to know them. I’m sure this was a conscious choice, but without it we are left as mere observers, stuck behind that glass. We have no “in” as to who these people are, what brought them here, or where they are going when the ninety minutes is over. The proceedings are led by the character of Jim (Marc Bovino), the facilitator for the survey company in charge of getting the responses necessary, who he drives the action the entire time. He’s totally believable and offers a sly sense of humor beneath his hail-fellow-well-met persona, but there is still no character there we can get to know or understand. And this is true for every single one of the eight people on stage all night long (no one exits for even a moment until the conclusion).
So what does it all add up to? Beats me if I know. Funnily enough, in 2017 Neugebauer directed Annie Baker’s The Antipodes, which I very much enjoyed. It, too, took place exclusively in a room with people seated around a table, only this time it was a writer’s room for a new TV series and there was a specific goal that needed to be achieved: come up with the concept for a dramatic fantasy-style show. And in the course of that play, there were consequences for the participants’ actions, with people getting fired, along with power trips and head trips galore. Things were happening! Drama equals conflict. It’s the essence of what makes a play work. Sadly, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is devoid of such things.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie. Through April 27 at the Greenwich House Theater (27 Barrow Street, at Seventh Avenue). www.arsnovanyc.com
Photos: Ben Arons