Natalie Rine, Contributing Critic - New York City
Author Jean Kerr once quipped, “Being divorced is like being hit by a Mack truck. If you live through it, you start looking very carefully to the right and to the left.”
Kerr is full of such quips, and she uses them hungrily in her 1960s comedy hit, "Mary, Mary," being revived ambitiously by Retro Productions at the Gene Frankel Theatre downtown.
"Mary" is about what happens when two people have married each other, separated, and after vigorously looking to the right and left, through a number of snarky quips, get back together happily ever after, no questions asked.
On Broadway in its prime, the play was revolutionary, charming, and witty--acknowledging divorce and spoofing movie stars and what were then called "health nuts," while finishing with a Shakespearean sense of satisfaction when the lovers get paired up properly. It was so successful, in fact, that it ran for over three years, solidifying Jean Kerr as a force to be reckoned with, a strong female playwright now sadly overlooked and rarely revived. Attempting to resuscitate this dated work now, Retro’s "Mary" seems quaint at best, and unbearably dull at worst. The laugh factor alone has seriously dropped from the time when this comedy was both running on Broadway and on movie screens starring Debbie Reynolds.
In a sea of octogenarians, I tried to stay firm with an open mind, deciphering allusions and nostalgia zinging by at every turn with the help of a handy guide in the program. However, I digress from this review to say when an elderly audience member decides the only joke in the play is an actor’s weight (it is not), and makes a point to comment out loud on this during every scene, I will admit I found it hard to honor or appreciate this play as the sliver of female Broadway historical importance (it is), when such blatantly disrespectful theater-goers exist. Perhaps they should stay at home and watch “I Love Lucy” reruns, instead of interrupting my experience with their lackluster, misconstrued notions of comedy and romantic heroines.
Setting rude patrons aside, the problem now is that director Shay Gines and the cast fail to pump any needed energy into the material, leaving a trail of wan half-chuckles and displaying a puzzling lack of chemistry.
The titular character Mary is a compulsively wise-cracking magazine editor who uses her sense of humor to shield her insecurities, while her ex-husband Bob is an infuriatingly sensible publisher. Their marriage ended in divorce and they haven't seen each other in 9 months, but now Mary has been called back to Bob's apartment by their mutual friend and lawyer, Oscar, in the hopes that they can avert an audit by the IRS. Throw in Bob's young fiancée Tiffany; his old war buddy, the handsome and single film hero whose star is in decline, Dirk Winston; and one major snow storm—and we have the makings of a bouncy comedy, if jokes about audits, sex, and books are your cup of tea.
Although initial focus falls on a bumbling Bob, played with verve and earnestness by Chris Harcum, the story quickly pins all our love and attention on a wise-cracking, guns-blazing Mary. Artistic Director and star Heather E. Cunningham’s Mary is infused with equal-parts vivacity and heartbreak, highlighting the pain and insecurities she endured as a child and a bride, while also displaying her unflappable wit and intelligence in the face of personal and emotional struggles caught however frustratingly between the men of the plot. The two lack chemistry and spark needed to re-ignite their characters’ relationship, instead each shining in stand-alone moments of facetious and exaggerated comedy with other cast members. A suave and debonair movie star, Robert Franklin Neill’s Dirk is so convincing for example that his motives fumble and befuddle the plot. Does he actually like Mary? Is he just selfishly courting her to get his book published by Bob? The comedy is lost in his sequences of romance, while his “locker room talks” with Bob so-to-speak (without the women) show a completely different side to him. Perhaps it is this dual nature of men that Kerr’s witty words hoped to elucidate, but if you are looking for a clear-cut rom-com of nostalgia, unfortunately this piece hasn’t aged well with modern sentiments of class and gender wishing Mary would pull an Eliza Doolittle and walk right out on her own away from these antiquated plot devices of secret date wagering and manipulating “transformations.” The other characters just simply aren’t compelling enough, or anywhere near on Mary’s intelligence level, to merit this three act circus anymore.
Thankfully, the play is beautifully designed and the true star is the delightful scenery, costumes, and props that transport us to a simpler time.
“Mary, Mary” by Jean Kerr is directed by Shay Gines. “Mary, Mary” stars Chris Harcum, Meghan E. Jones, Desmond Dutcher, Robert Franklin Neill, and Heather E. Cunningham.
The design team includes Jack and Rebecca Cunningham (Set Design), Ben Philipp (Costume Design), Asa Lipton (Lighting Design), Trevor Williams (Sound Design), and Sara Slagle (Properties Design).
“Mary, Mary” runs at the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond Street (Between Lafayette & Bowery), New York, NY 10012) through May 18, 2019. Tickets for “Mary, Mary” are $22 students and seniors, and $25 for general admission and can be purchased online at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1004033. For more information, please visit www.retroproductions.org
Photo of Heather E. Cunningham, Chris Harcum and Desmond Dutcher. Photo by Kyle Connolly, Connolly Photo NYC.