Life in a Marital Institution
A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.
The tabloids are having a field day, what with all the juicy celebrity divorces coming one on top of another. The latest: Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook -- an affair with a teenager and an expensive porno habit. What could make better copy?
In our celebrity-obsessed culture, that's news. Monogamy, on the other hand, is boring. "Dog bites man" is not a story, said one editor. "But man bites dog" is. James Braly's "Life in a Marital Institution" is of the "dog bites man" variety, but what a wonderful "dog": funny, tender, and poignant -- and very, very strange.
He describes his monologue about marriage as "20 years of monogamy in one terrifying hour" and asks: can his marriage be saved? Should it be saved? He leaves you to answer the question as he gives you all the unfettered, un-pretty-ed details about his wife, Susan, the beautiful temptress, France, who looks like a picture for a "buy-French-War-Bonds" poster, his children Owen and Oliver, and his dying sister, Kathy.
It's in Kathy's hospice room that Braly chooses to start his story. His sister, a party girl, is going to party to the end, getting married on her death bed between heavy doses of Dilauded that make her fall asleep between sentences. Braly speaks as lovingly about her as he does about his wife, but he is bewildered as to why he loves Susan.
At one point, Braly tells us, Kathy lifts her oxygen mask and asks her brother, "Do you love me enough to trade places with me?" His hilarious response gets a knowing nod from Kathy: "Would you want to be married to Susan?"
Susan is strange. There's no other way to describe her. A graduate of Smith and Harvard, this brilliant woman is content being a stay-at-home mom. She believes children should be born at home, everything they eat or wear must be organic and non-animal, and placentas should be given a respectful funeral. Braly describes her as a "lactivist": someone who believes in breast-feeding children anytime, anywhere, as long as they like -- Owen is four and still at it.
Braly knows his wife is not your regular kind of gal, yet he loves her passionately. We could talk for hours, he says, though for now, their talking has to be done over the phone since she's nearly three hours away. A former, highly paid corporate speech writer, the couple decided to sell their Upper West Side co-op (except for the storage unit) and move to upstate Harlemville, a place where there's no television and neighboring couples have even weirder ideas about placentas.
Seamlessly intertwining his stories as he deftly switches from Kathy, to the rest of his family, to Susan, we get a multi-dimensional picture of this complex man who makes any single woman lament that he's no longer av
ailable. And what an incredible sacrifice he is making to bring his story to the stage. Braly is currently living in that storage unit, eating all his meals in a restaurant, showering twice-a-week at his gym, doing six performances a week, and loving every minute of it. He began putting these tales together at The Moth, New York's premier storytelling community, and then presented his work at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Back in New York, it had a sold-out run at the 59E59 Theaters this past winter, and is now ensconced in SoHo, playing to audiences who want to feel good about marriage.
You'll never look at marriage quite the same again after you see "Life in a Marital Institution." It's a love letter to his wife, his family, and to all of you who want to celebrate all the difficulties you endure to keep your marriage together. Watch for the book to be published in 2009.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
Originally published on