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February 15, 2011

Despite hype, Mary is all bark and no bite

Questions of race and sexuality have, for better or worse, become fixtures in contemporary American politics. In Mary, premiering at the Goodman Theatre, playwright Thomas Bradshaw sets out to unmask still-present problems of civil rights, but only echoes all too familiar platitudes.

Mary opens in David’s (Alex Weisman) dorm room, where he and his boyfriend, Jonathan (Eddie Bennett), are about to depart for winter break. In one of many dull bits of exposition, the play lays out all the background you need: It is 1983, the fear of AIDS is in full bloom, and Jonathan is coming to visit David at his home in Maryland after Christmas.

The play really begins to take shape once we are introduced to David’s family. Plenty of space is devoted to his mother, Dolores (Barbara Garrick), who desires to open a model plantation on the family’s property—for educational purposes, of course. Meanwhile, his father, James (Scott Jaeck), rehearses what he hopes will be a series of talk show appearances to discuss his banal battle against prostate cancer. All this talky characterization seems inefficient at best, especially when the dining room’s massive portrait of Thomas Jefferson does the job nicely.

By the time Jonathan arrives, evocations of the Old South are beginning to border on nauseous. He is introduced to Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor), the family’s housekeeper/slave. The woman is subservient, illiterate, and nearly unpaid. She lives in a cabin on the property with her husband, Elroy (Cedric Young). Jonathan’s welcome dinner erupts into a slew of jokes at Mary’s expense. But most importantly, she is continually denoted by a particular acial epithet that I’m certain can’t be printed here. The audience’s reactions were telling. Audible gasps filled the theater each time Mary’s nickname was brought up, as though the audience had to prove their innocence.

Tension builds between David and his mother as the two argue over Mary’s place in the family. Meanwhile, David’s father begins to question his son’s sexuality. Here, Bradshaw could have taken the opportunity to develop his characters more, but he lets it fizzle. He wants to convince us that his characters are intricate and honest, but he isn’t willing to escape stereotypes. Instead, each character is laden with superfluous details that feel like a last-ditch effort to imbue the play with some sort of realism. The gay kids sport predictably neat hairstyles and colorful sweaters, but—surprise!—they’re not too bad at hunting. The conservative parents are prudes at the dining table, but unafraid to crack sex jokes when no one is looking. For all the time lost on them, one hopes these particulars will have some bearing on the theme. Spoiler: They don’t.

The only characters that escape reduction are Mary and Elroy. Mary’s warm demeanor turns cold when she discovers a container of lube in James’s bedroom. In a plot to cure him of his sin, Mary and Elroy decide to shoot Jonathan in the crotch. Shortly after, the two regret their decision and question their Christian justifications, but the perplexing reversals are not over. Mary’s convictions are in constant (and seemingly arbitrary) flux until the play’s conclusion, when we begin to wonder what it’s all for.

Bradshaw’s tactic isn’t necessarily misguided. After all, this play is a satire, right? The trouble is that Bradshaw never decides what it is that he intends to satirize. For such an overtly political play, Mary is hardly able to make any statement at all. Sure, it draws questionable parallels between the civil and gay rights movements. It invites you to muse about the possibility of a post-racial country. It even makes a personal case for accepting homosexuals. Still, it all seems so obvious. Don’t we already know all this? Bradshaw doesn’t seem to think so. He stuffs the play’s conclusion with a long speech that serves as little more than a primer on gay politics, just in case you haven’t heard of Prop 8, say, or the Defense of Marriage Act.

Maybe, then, we should look past the play’s flat politicking. The cast maneuvers their roles deftly and with enormous humanity; we want to love them all. But, scene after scene, we are forced to accept them as pawns in Bradshaw’s cruel and rambling game.

More than anything, the play proves that race and sexuality are still issues that make audiences squirm. When Mary is unable to muster any cleverness, it begs its audience to be shocked. In fact, the Goodman Theatre seems to be bracing itself for the backlash that may ensue (they urge theatre-goers to share their feelings on a special blog), but the play’s edge is grossly overhyped. Despite all the questions it leaves hanging, one is never broached: If we have to question our ability to be post-racial or post-gay, haven’t we already failed?

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