Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ben Brantley on Marie and Bruce as "The Feel-Bad Hit of the Season"

I have great respect for Ben Brantley (which means, I guess, that I find myself agreeing with him more often than not), so when I do find myself disagreeing with him about a particular play, I try to understand why. This recently occurred in regard to the current production of Marie and Bruce at the Acorn Theater (Brantley liked it; I didn’t). But this time, at least, the explanation is easy: Brantley actually provided it himself in a piece he wrote in today’s New York Times entitled “The Feel-Bad Hit of the Season.” Here’s a link to it:

It’s not that Brantley thought more highly of the actors’ performances than I did: we both thought that Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley were excellent in the title roles. Nor did we interpret the play very differently from one another: he viewed it as a “portrait of a festering marriage” that “encourages you to luxuriate in your most negative, misanthropic feelings” and whose performers are “willing to embrace their characters’ deepest unpleasantness.” I found the play to be “banal and boring, a one note composition focusing on the relationship between Bruce (Frank Whaley), a narcissistic,thick-skinned lout and Marie (Marisa Tomei), his dysfunctional, foul mouthed wife.”

No, the difference between us doesn’t relate to the facts of the play nor to its performers. Rather, it relates to what it is that we are looking for when we go to the theatre in the first place. I hope to be entertained or educated or engaged or provoked and, yes, if that requires that I sometimes be made to feel uncomfortable, that’s a price I’m willing to pay. But I’m not willing to be made to feel uncomfortable just for its own sake, whereas Brantley not only is, but seems to revel in it.

Indeed, in the article cited above, Brantley writes:”An acridness hung in the air during the New Group’s revival of Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce on a recent night, something I don’t often experience at the theater. It was the thick curdled aura of an audience’s collective discomfort….What I’m talking about is that palpable unhappiness that arises when an audience feels utterly ill at ease with what’s happening onstage.” I fully agree that that was what it felt like. But Brantley seems to think that’s a good thing and I don’t.

Brantley goes on to compare Marie and Bruce to Ibsen’s Ghosts, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, all of which, in Brantley’s words “made audiences and critics squirm.” But it is not the fact that those plays made audiences squirm that made them worth seeing; what made them worth seeing was that they all had something to say and were brilliantly and insightfully written. If “squirming” for a couple of hours was the price that one had to pay to see them, it was well worth it.

But, sad to say, it’s not worth it for Marie and Bruce. Shawn is no Ibsen or Beckett or Osborne or Albee and Marie and Bruce is no Ghosts or Waiting for Godot or Look Back in Anger or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, so far as Marie and Bruce goes, while I should never have phrased it this way myself, I find myself more in agreement with John Simon who once called it “the kind of play that if either our drama critics or our garbage collectors did their work properly, could not have survived one night.”

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