By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
NEW YORK — On a sultry Monday night at 2nd Stage, a signature non-profit Off-Broadway company, the packed house is full of actors, directors, agents.
They’ve stepped through the spicy scent of lilies (courtesy of a corner vendor) and a cloud of eau de Sabretts hot dogs into the spruced-up West 44th theatre to see the latest from a Chicago theatre artist of apparently endless versatility.
That would be Tracy Letts, poster-person for Chicago’s fabled ensemble company Steppenwolf — award-winning actor, director, and the playwright who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, his funny and fierce multi-generational saga of an Oklahoma clan in full implosion.
With Mary Page Marlowe, which premiered in Chicago in 2016 and arrives in New York in a production directed by Lila Neugebauer. Letts fractures the unremarkable life of a women, an Ohio tax accountant, into 11 scenes and scrambles the chronology. Six actors — seven if you count the doll who plays Mary Page in infancy — the role of the title character at different ages. (Hint, hint … potential producers: every female actor you know will be lining up).
They add up, sort of, but not in a serial way: the oldest of the Mary Page Marlowe’s (beautifully played by Blair Brown) herself wonders if there’s any real connection between her former selves. Has she even been the same person? It’s the great mystery of identity, whether it’s fixed or re-invented at every turn. When there’s no progression into consequences, or follow-up in the scenes (sparingly written and powerful in that), it’s a way of saying that you never know what small moments in your life are going to be the seminal ones.
The play starts in the middle, with the 40-year-old Mary Page (Susan Pourfar) explaining to her kids — teenage daughter appalled, son unimpressed — that she and their father are splitting up, and they’re re-locating to Kentucky. It’s a life with multiple divorces, re-marriages, affairs, kid crises, a slide into booze, a tragedy. The most inconsequential, benign encounter of all is the last scene, involving dry cleaning an heirloom quilt (the past is fragile, evidently) of all things. The end.
The audiences was taken aback by the odd abruptness of it all. The woman sitting beside me, evidently a theatre producer, said to her companion “I can’t believe it’s over!”
In the scenes themselves, though, it’s a play that sneaks up on you with its moving real-ness. And the cast, which includes Emmy-winning Tatiana Maslani of Orphan Black, as Mary Page Marlowe at 27 and 36, is exceptional.
A revival of Letts’ first play Killer Joe, a grisly and violent 1993 family dysfunction satire, opened in London in June. Martin McDonagh’s gleefully gruesome The Lieutenant of Inishmore is in the West End; it’s a veritable bloodbath. But the most genuinely shocking play of all, said Michael Billington, the venerable Guardian theatre critic, is one that’s arrived from London at the Public Theater in New York’s East Village.
Cyprus Avenue is a black absurdist comedy that makes most plays that fly under that flag look beige. It’s by David Ireland, whose I Promise You Sex And Violence horrified Edinburgh Fringe audiences and critics alike in 2014 (the reviews alone will make your hair curl). And this latest joint production, a collaboration between London’s Royal Court and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (where it originated) is directed by the former’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone.
As an attack on the absurdity of sectarian violence in Ireland, Cyprus Avenue (named for a Belfast street) takes its black humour about fanaticism to extremes of violence that will leave you aghast. But don’t get me wrong, Cyprus Avenue is laugh-out-loud funny before it’s way-out-there horrifying.
The brilliant Irish actor Stephen Rea stars as a Belfast unionist, an Ulsterman who believes that he is British, not Irish, and that the sacred cause is under lethal attack from the Catholics. He comes to believe — and argues with hilarious articulateness — that his new baby granddaughter not only has an uncanny resemblance to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams (she has “Fenian eyes”) but actually is Gerry Adams.
How this position devolves into terrifying savagery, logically and step-by-step, is the way this play ticks, a la Swift’s Modest Proposal. Just when you think it can’t possibly pursue its own comic logic any further into outrage, it keeps going. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a play that takes itself beyond the pale with quite that much fearlessness.
At the end, we all sat mute and appalled, wondering what to do next. A drink? A Valium? A A Sabretts ‘dog? A Disney stage musical? Nothing seems quite right. (In the end we opted for a highly unusual amalgam of theatre and magic, that in its own strange and seductive way is, like Mary Page Marlowe, about the mystery of identity: In And Of Itself by and starring the illusionist Derek DelGaudio).
Incidentally, Ireland has a new play, Ulster American, at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It comes with the warning “not for the faint of heart.” Exactly.