Marie and Bruce/Working Magic | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Marie and Bruce/Working Magic 

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MARIE AND BRUCE

Parallax Theater Company

at Sheffield's School Street Cafe

WORKING MAGIC

Victory Gardens Theater

Wallace Shawn's Marie and Bruce is a nasty little play about a nasty neurotic couple and the nasty little life they've carved out for themselves in New York City. Yet there's something incredibly fascinating about this pair of monsters and the misery they inflict on each other--fascinating in the way that Ralph and Alice Kramden are fascinating, or Albee's George and Martha. Fascinating, perhaps, because such bickering couples loudly and unambiguously communicate all those dark feelings that "healthier" couples repress.

The trick to playing or portraying these characters is to make them not too hateful--to give them a bit of humanity. Jackie Gleason sugarcoated Ralph Kramden, making it clear that he's genuinely good-hearted under all the shouting. He'd never really send Alice to the moon. Albee undercuts George and Martha's sharp-tongued mutual assaults by gradually revealing that they're completely dependent on each other.

The problem with Shawn's play is that neither Marie nor Bruce is particularly likable. Marie is a cauldron of hate boiling over. She starts off complaining that "I find my husband so goddamned irritating that I'm planning to leave him" and only lets up her abuse when she becomes sick at a party. Bruce is a much harder character to read, but his relative complexity makes him no more appealing. Sometimes he seems a classic American passive-aggressive boy-man, so helpless and utterly dependent on Marie he'll even put up with symbolic castration. At other times Bruce seems more schmuck than schlemiel, as when he tells Marie in the most graphic terms about the incredible sex he once had with a woman sitting across the room from them.

When Tight and Shiny produced Marie and Bruce last summer, director Timothy Sullens dealt with this problem by revealing not only that Marie and Bruce have a sado-masochistic relationship but that each partner plays both sides of the fence. Karen F. Woditsch played Marie as a woman who's sharper than a serpent's tooth at home but rather mousy in public, and David Wagner's Bruce was quiet and earnest at home and loud and nasty at parties. By the end of this production we empathized with both people because we could see how much each suffered at the hands of the other.

Parallax Theater Company's production, currently being performed at Sheffield's School Street Cafe, could have benefited from a similar insight. Instead directors Debbie Saivetz and Victor D'Altorio have chosen to make Marie the focus of the play. This decision need not have been bad in itself (though I didn't care for the way they staged Shawn's marvelously parodic cocktail party as if it were dancing through Marie's fevered brain). But that decision, coupled with D'Altorio's and Eileen Vorbach's intense one-note performances, has resulted in a production in which Marie and Bruce are not only unlikable but, after a few minutes, pretty annoying.

It doesn't help that Vorbach plays Marie as such a loud, unreasonably angry woman--she seems less a woman wronged than one in need of immediate psychiatric treatment. And having established early in the play that Marie is a battle-ax of the first variety, Vorbach cannot for the life of her win one iota of sympathy for Marie later. When Bruce needles her with the line "Darling, you don't think you are mentally ill, do you?" it's hard not to wonder whether he's right.

As Bruce, D'Altorio doesn't give Vorbach much room to maneuver. Even at his most aggressive, D'Altorio's Bruce is still more worm than man. And it would take a terrific actress indeed to be able to come on as strong as Vorbach does at the play's beginning and believably lower her status to below worm level by the play's end.

The supporting characters fare better at negotiating Shawn's difficult terrain. But in this play the secondary characters are only of tertiary importance: they hardly affect the play's overall mood. They certainly can't change the message of Parallax Theater's production: hell is other people.

In the Victory Gardens Theater production of Margaret Hunt's ambling, surprisingly undramatic Working Magic, the secondary characters are the most interesting and those at the center are a couple of bores whose problems hardly amount to a hill of beans.

This play concerns a ne'er-do-well magician, Harry Houdini Grant, who can't seem to sire a child or make a living in his chosen career, and his wife Lila, who can't decide whether she should stay with Harry or leave him. She kinda does both: she throws him out and then stays in such close contact with him it's hard to remember they're living apart. Harry's similarly ambivalent. Even when he discovers that he really can levitate objects, he seems happiest when he's just blown an audition.

These colorless main characters may explain why Hunt has populated the outer edges of her play with so many fascinating creatures--new-age cranks, smooth-talking obstetricians, sarcastic casting directors. They're brought to life by the three most interesting actors in this show: Kelly Anchors, Kate Buddeke, and Phillip Edward Van Lear.

But nowhere is it explained why we're supposed to care about this pair of lukewarm losers. Especially when Harry and Lila's best friends, Charlene and Malcolm, have much more interesting problems: their careers have both taken off just when their new baby needs tending at home. Of course it doesn't help that Michael Varna and Carlton Miller seem determined to make Harry and Lila as flat and uninteresting as possible. Varna in particular is so laid back that he almost seems on the verge of dozing off.

What is most frustrating about Working Magic, however, is the annoying way Hunt skims over such important topics as: How does one balance a true calling with the world's material demands? Or when should a man give up childish pursuits and act like a grown-up? She never lights on such subjects long enough to explore them.

Watching Making Magic on opening night made me realize that there are far worse things than nasty little plays about nasty neurotic couples--like sleepy little plays about nice neurotic couples.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.

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