By John Soltes
Marisa Tomei, an Oscar winner for My Cousin Vinny, is becoming one of our coveted theatrical treasures. Every couple of years she offers audiences a memorable portrait on a New York stage. This season she helps brings to life a revival of Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce at The New Group.
Tomei plays Marie, one part of a struggling marriage. The other player is Bruce (the likable Frank Whaley). We first meet the two lying in bed; Bruce is sleeping, while Marie is antsy and moving around. Amazingly, director Scott Elliott has the two act this first scene while audience members find their way to their seats in the off-Broadway venue. We have a good ten minutes with the characters before the lights go down and they begin the formal dialogue. The prologue is a clever method of setting the mood early on: We know almost instantly that this is going to be a play of marital strife.
Marie eventually begins by using Shawn’s carefully chosen words of acid in denigrating her husband with profanity-laced insults. She downright hates the man who shares her bed. No history or context is given on why Marie feels this way, but it’s obvious that the marriage is on the cusp of failure. Bruce, who seems to live in another world, doesn’t even comprehend that his wife is upset. He simply goes about his business, getting dressed, heading out with friends and enjoying himself at a party. It is in this format that Tomei’s Marie becomes the character we latch on to for the full ride of the 90-minute play. We learn to see the world through her eyes.
Thankfully, Tomei proves to be a worthy vessel. Her acting is top-notch, especially in the quiet moments when she’s not spewing invective at Bruce. The intimate space of the Acorn Theatre, where Marie and Bruce plays through Saturday, May 7, may be intimidating for actors. Emotions are made bare within a few feet of the crowd. Tomei and Whaley are very much up for the task. They find the right balance of “acting” their fake marriage, and “living” their real one. There’s one exceptional monologue that Whaley gives with his feet dangling off the stage; he talks directly to us and commands our attention.
The supporting cast members, serving as the patrons in a cafe and at a party, are quite solid as well. Elliott’s direction, which for me has always been hit or miss, proves to be perfectly suited for Shawn’s downtrodden look at the institution of modern marriage.
Despite its strengths, when the evening ends there is definitely a feeling of smallness in the air; although Marie and Bruce are worthy of dissection, I’m not sure if the play elevates their evolution to one of universal parallelism. Can we see ourselves in these two sorry souls? Is that even the point? Shawn doesn’t package everything with a bow. His message seems to be more obscure: Does self-analysis lead to change or just more heartbreak? If we are held in societal or marital prisons, then what good is venting?
Pondering these questions make Marie and Bruce a strong, if not perfect, entry in the late off-Broadway season.
Marie and Bruce
A production of The New Group
Directed by Scott Elliott
Written by Wallace Shawn
Starring Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley
Playing at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. in New York City
Click here for more information. Tickets are $61.25, with discounts available.
Running time: 90 minutes
Bubble score: 3 out of 4