Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley in Marie and Bruce
(© Monique Carboni)
Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley in Marie and Bruce
(© Monique Carboni)
Wallace Shawn's problematic play Marie and Bruce, now being revived by the New Group on Theatre Row under Scott Elliott's direction, might best be described as a thorny slice-of-life peek into the unhappy marriage of the title characters. Unfortunately, it's also a bleak and unsatisfying evening of theater.

At the beginning, Marie (Marisa Tomei) announces to the audience, "I find my husband so God damned irritating that I'm planning on leaving him." And she doesn't change her mind throughout the intermissionless 100-minute play. She hurls endless insults at him at an alarming speed, which is initially shocking and funny, then uncomfortable, and finally irrelevant and even mind- numbing despite Tomei's considerable charm.

Marie's as pretty as she is emotionally high strung, and Bruce (Frank Whaley) seems to have become immune to her endless barrage of insults. He passively mucks about at home, tending to her demands in a lackluster fashion. When she requests breakfast, he brings her old rolls from a nearby table, and when she asks for coffee, he debates out loud whether to make a fresh pot. The machine curiously sits on their nightstand, suggesting perhaps that walking to the kitchen is simply too much.

At one point, Bruce even puts on an old pair of pants reeking of urine (possibly just to irk Marie) until she tells him to change. It would appear that he's a helpless creature until we see him at a friend's dinner party where he is transformed into a full-fledged person. He eats, drinks, laughs, tells stories, all without the prodding of his wife who sits across the table.

The couple and their friends sit at a giant table that rotates on a platform throughout the oversized scene, giving us snippets of various conversations: the party's host, Ralph (Alok Tewari) passionately arguing with a man, Nils (Russell G. Jones), about the importance of teaching reading in schools if technology will soon make it irrelevant; an eccentrically pretty actress, Janet (Tina Benko), venting to Bruce about a recent run-in with a director; an overweight man, Herb (Devin Ratray) venting to Marie about being underappreciated in his job; and many other random but ultimately innocuous dialogues.

We never get enough of any one conversation, and end up feeling like unwelcomed guests who hang awkwardly in a corner. There's also a maddening repetition to Shawn's writing that, while illustrating the monotonous, and vapid lives of his overeducated characters, also distances us from them. Even during Marie and Bruce's lengthy monologues, we never quite get a sense of who they are. Perhaps Shawn's point is that we remain isolated in life despite being surrounded by people.