Theater Review: Marie and Bruce

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Marie and Bruce
A Match Made in…

Marie (Marisa Tomei) and Bruce (Frank Whaley)

While the audience slowly wanders into the theater–greeting friends, finding seats and getting settled–a woman and man recline on the double bed on stage.  He sleeps soundly (snoring and snorting).  Tissue in hand, she tosses and turns, gets out of bed, paces, drinks water, fans herself, returns to bed, smokes a cigarette.  He stirs.  She addresses the audience directly:

Let me tell you something. I find my husband so God damned irritating that
I’m planning to leave him.

Then the lights go dark in the theater and the New York revival of Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce continues.  He turns toward her and asks if it’s time to get up.  She responds testily that it isn’t and orders him back to sleep.  He sweetly suggests that she not be irritable, a request that maddens her further.

After he obediently rolls over and resumes sleep, she lets fly a tirade of invectives laced with schoolyard profanity directed at her supine spouse.  The story line interwoven with her cursing doesn’t account for the level of her fury.  Her husband had disturbed her sleep to ask the whereabouts of his beloved but noisy typewriter.  That he became unhappy when she admitted tossing it out only increases her scorn.

In response to the racket she’s now making, he wakes up.  An exchange of words ensues and continues intermittently throughout the play, never quite coalescing into communication.  In fact, the relationship that Marie (Marisa Tomei) and Bruce (Frank Whaley) attempt to share takes on an increasingly surreal quality as the drama unfolds.  The psychodynamics of this dyad resist analysis using any school of psychological thought.

Marie proclaims to the audience at the beginning that she intends to leave her husband and after a riotous dinner party at the home of Bruce’s friend Roger, attempts to convey her intentions to her mate.  Near the end of the play, as the disengaged couple share coffee and dessert in a dimly lit cafè, his response and her capitulation to his pleas reaffirm the bizarre nature of their dance.

Thanks to set designer Derek McLane’s considerable talents, the staging steals the show.  The bed of the first scene morphs into a round dinner table that rests on a rotating portion of the stage.  As the guests enter the home of their host, they each bring an assortment of props that become place settings and servings of food.

Once dinner is underway, the audience gets treated to snippets of chatter as the table turns to present first one spotlighted group and then another, with pauses in between marked by disco music and strobe lights.

At the end of the party, guests exit and take the props with them.  The round dinner table gets converted into several square tables, the lights dim for a cafè scene and customers carry in chairs and take seats.  Two men among them engage in loud conversation about the nastier symptoms of food poisoning.

After this final scene, as Marie and Bruce walked off into an imagined sunset, one had to wonder whether couples like this one actually exist and if they do, what drives them to that degree of rage?  In this case, the wife’s anger emerged aggressively and the husband’s took on an exquisitely passive-aggressive tone.  Often it’s the reverse.

None of the characters seem real but perhaps that’s the point.  Exaggeration, when done well as it is here, makes for amusing situations.  Good comedy sneaks up and surprises, conveying ideas ordinarily too unpalatable to digest.  In this theater piece, viewers enjoy a fly-on-the-wall view of the alienation that’s crept into 21st century life, and perhaps their own.

Marie and Bruce
The New Group @ Theater Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036