I am a big fan of Tracy Letts. I was stunned by August Osage County. The story was layered and challenging. Letts’ range is vast and the paths that he chooses are not the beaten ones. His work as an actor is masterful. With Mary Page Marlowe, however, he has left me in the dust. I have no idea what was intended or why an audience was included in on the proceedings.
None. Zero. Zip.
I have read the various blurbs, and I know that this is intended to be an overview of the life of Mary Page Marlowe from weeks after her arrival in 1946 to the ripe old age of 69. Over the course of those seven decades she was married three times, had two children and did some time in prison. That last bit was for drunk driving. My telling you this is not a spoiler alert because there is no one thing, no one incident from which you need to be kept. And that is kind of the problem.
The story begins with Mary (Susan Pourfar) age 40, explaining to her children that a divorce is in the works, and the three of them will be locating to Louisville which, for all intents and purposes, is presented as being on the very edge of n-o-w-h-e-r-e. As opposed to Dayton, the location of their present home. So right off the bat we know that Mary Page Marlow is not Pollyanna. Life has potholes. Check.
As we move through the other unremarkable moments in her life, we discover that there are quite a few unsatisfying moments, starting with her parent’s marriage. Later we see Mary as a teenager (Mia Sinclair Jenness) revisit her mother Roberta (Grace Gummer) who has become skilled at the art of damning with faint praise. Life at college places Mary (Emma Geer) squarely in the era of women going to college to get their “MRS” Degree. But this is not for Mary. She wants something more. We never find out what that is, but it appears she doesn’t get it.
Sleeping with her boss proves to be a mistake for Mary (Tatiana Maslany) which we realize in retrospect as we try to put the pieces together later on. We see the aftermath there is the drunk driving incident when Mary (Kelly Overbey) is 50 and headed for the clink. An existential midlife crisis brings Mary (Tatiana Maslany), age 36, to a Shrink (Marcia Debonis). This scene, although long, feels like it is the exact center of this piece. Mary tells the shrink
The truth is you and I pretend I make decisions about the direction of my life. I don’t. I haven’t. I didn’t decide on any of it. All of it happened to me, and I went along with it, and I, I... I never affected anything, I never altered the course. Like some bird. Like a migrating bird. I just did what seemed natural.
There was a noticeable groan in the audience as many of us recognized that feeling. But we are not off the hook. Mary goes on to say that she is unexceptional. Finally, she admits that because she is a woman life offered specific choices: wife, mother etc. The deck was already stacked. The result? I am not the person I am. I’m just acting….
Who does not know that feeling?
When nuggets like this are fed to us by the teaspoon, the difference between them and the rest of the writing is noticeable. Each scene in this play (and the scenes are not chronological) brings with it one or two little pilot lights that stay with you. They do not, however, connect to one another. Nor do they ever accumulate into a fire. They never have the chance. We are pulled from one time and space to another, and just as something begins to simmer, the scene ends and the next begins. With each new scene we have to start all over again. Who is THIS Mary? Where does she fit into the narrative? Right about the time that we find the dots, the scene ends. Again and again and again. The dots float away, untethered.
Mary Page Marlowe is meant to be an intriguing person. Instead, she remains closed to us. We are never let in. If we are not let in, we do not connect. If we do not connect, we do not care. If we do not care, an opportunity has been tossed out the window. And that, my friends, is the ultimate disappointment for an audience.
The good news is that if you made it this far, and if you saw August Osage County, and if you can tell me what scene used olives as a prop - I will buy you a drink. Martini? Manhattan? Long Island Iced Tea? You name it.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Mary Page Marlowe, a gripping play by Tracy Letts that opened on Thursday at Second Stage Theater, is fundamentally the story of a steely, difficult, unhappy woman who, despite her intelligence, cannot understand how she ended up where she is."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"While the play’s wide scope keeps the audience at a bird’s-eye remove, its components are vivid close-up snapshots. Director Lila Neugebauer keeps Mary Page in hard, revealing focus even as the character sometimes smudges herself in denial or passivity. (Substance abuse is a recurring issue: a need to be out of control.) Mary Page Marlowe combines moments of crisis into a longer view of time. It approaches life—this one life—with something that feels like wisdom."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Fans of August Osage County may be disappointed with this one. Mary Page Marlowe is a much more subtle drama, lacking the wild humor and tonal shifts that made August Osage... such a favorite. But it is a work that demands your attention and, ultimately, self-reflection."
Roma Torre for NY1
"It's a testament to the sensitivity of Lila Neugebauer's production of Mary Page Marlowe, and the subtle connective thread binding the half-dozen actresses playing the title character at various ages, that the silences are when Tracy Letts' drama achieves its sharpest poignancy."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"By examining the very ordinary moments of a woman’s life, playwright Tracy Letts reveals how extraordinary a life can be."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...