Elevate Difference

Marie and Bruce (4/8/11)

New York, New York

When I was a kid I used to stay out of sight when my parents fought, fearful that their vitriol would extend to me. But I always listened, eager to understand the conflict. So it is with Marie and Bruce, Wallace Shawn’s look at the most dysfunctional of dysfunctional relationships.

The play begins even before a word of dialogue is uttered. As the audience enters the theater, Marie (a furious and pained Marisa Tomei) and Bruce (a disaffected and cool Frank Whaley) are lying on a large, ill-made bed in center stage. He’s asleep. Marie, however, is awake and the audience sees her tossing and turning, blowing her nose, touching her forehead to check for fever, and getting up stretch and smoke. Her angst is visible as Bruce softly snores, apparently unbothered by his wife’s unease.

As morning dawns, Marie turns to the audience and confides that she is planning to leave her mate. Her ire is apparent in her language: Bruce is addressed as a “fucking pig,” a “goddamn worthless piece of shit,” and a “cocksucking turd.” We also learn that they’ve had a “a miserable summer.” Neither has a job—although as the play unfolds, money doesn’t seem to be a problem—and Marie has been afflicted with some sort of physical malaise that she likens to the flu.

As Marie rants about Bruce’s inadequacies, he seems unfazed and we soon realize that theirs is a waltz that is repeatedly danced. Like couples that bicker endlessly, Marie and Bruce are locked in a routine that is both senseless and compelling.

The three-scene, one-act play—it is one hour and forty minutes long—goes from the bedroom, to a nine-person dinner party rife with neurotic conversation, to a small café where the couple’s banter is clearly well honed. Both are verbally abusive. At one point, Bruce tells Marie that she “can be sort of a cunt” while she lambastes him as someone she neither respects nor loves.

It’s horrible to watch and must be far worse to live.

First performed in London’s The Royal Court Theatre in 1979, Marie and Bruce crossed the ocean a year later, arriving on U.S. shores in 1980 and garnering mixed reviews.

The New Group’s revival of the piece is beautifully acted. Furthermore, the staging, set design, lighting, and special effects are exceptional. That said, the play is depressing and audience members leave the theater thanking their lucky stars that they don’t have to contend with Marie and Bruce in real life.

What’s more, as a cautionary tale of love gone sour, Marie and Bruce makes for a harrowing, often cringe-worthy, evening. Worse, while the rancor expressed by each member of this lovelorn pair pulls at the viewer’s heartstrings, the play is ultimately an unsatisfying peak at a horrid relationship. One can only wonder why The New Group dusted the play off and brought it to Theatre Row.

Marie and Bruce runs through May 7, 2011 at Theatre Row.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, April 12th 2011