In a program note to Marie and Bruce, a throwaway line has it that “Wallace Shawn has been writing plays since the late nineteenth century, and the play you will see tonight, Marie and Bruce, was a personal favorite of Queen Victoria.” Sadly, that line was more amusing than any of the lines in the play itself.
The play wasn’t written in the nineteenth century, of course, but it was written long enough ago (in 1978) to be badly dated (not that it was that good a play when it first appeared). Premiering at The Royal Court in 1979, it had its American debut at the New York Shakespeare Festival (starring Louise Lasser and Bob Balaban in the title roles) in 1980 and, more than two decades later, in 2004, it was made into a motion picture starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick. It is now being revived by The New Group at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row in a production starring Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley. Lots of star power over the years, to be sure, but to little avail: the play itself is 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. And the play’s unrealized pretensions to existential insights are just plain embarrassing.
The play takes place at the home of Marie and Bruce, at a friend’s dinner party they attend, and at a café they frequent, in all of which situations, Marie insults, demeans and lambastes Bruce and threatens to leave him, while Bruce exhibits his inordinately self-centered insensitivity toward his wife’s feelings. But don’t think that this is another Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s not. Albee’s play was brilliantly written and we were made to believe in, relate to and really care about Martha and George. But we never do really care about Marie and Bruce.
When I first saw Marisa Tomei in her breakout role in My Cousin Vinny in 1992, a role for which she deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she stole my heart. And I was really looking forward to her performance in Marie and Bruce which I hoped would provide her with another showcase for her exceptional talent. Unfortunately, that was not to be – although through no fault of Tomei’s own. She does as well as might be expected with the role she has been given but the role itself isn’t much.
Probably the best performance in the play is that turned in by Frank Whaley as Bruce, who milks his role for all its worth. Similarly, Adam Trese provides a fine performance as Marie’s and Bruce’s friend Frank, their dinner party host. But notwithstanding Tomei’s, Whaley’s and Trese’s performances, the play really wasn’t worth reviving in the first place. You won’t be missing much if you skip it.