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Mary, Queen of Comedies

Musing on the death of Jean Kerr, Filichia reminisces about seeing the national tour of her play Mary, Mary, almost 40 years ago. logo

Jean Kerr
What a sad irony. On New Year's Day, I was wondering, "Which film should be the first I play this year?" I decided on Mary, Mary partly because, during my time in Boston over the holidays, I saw The Tale of the Allergist's Wife at the Wilbur Theatre. That's where, nearly 40 years ago, I saw the national tour of Mary, Mary -- still the best experience I've ever had at that theater.

Little did I know when I watched the tape a week ago Wednesday that the play's author, Jean Kerr, would die just a few days later. I was sorry that I never met her, for I would have loved to have told her how much this play means to me. But when I met Carol Channing in 1994, the first thing she said to me was that she had read a piece I did on my love for the play and had sent it to Mrs. Kerr, so maybe she did know.

Mary, Mary opened nearly in 1961 with Barbara Bel Geddes, Barry Nelson, and Michael Rennie at the old Helen Hayes on 46th Street. By the time the comedy closed nearly four years later, it had played 1,572 performances -- good enough to make it Broadway's ninth-longest running show at the time. Only five non-musicals (Life with Father, Tobacco Road, Abie's Irish Rose, Harvey, and Born Yesterday) had run longer. In fact, in the 38 years since, only two other straight plays on Broadway -- Deathtrap and Gemini -- have surpassed it.

The comedy was also one of a handful of properties that continued to run on Broadway even after their respective film versions had been released. Debbie Reynolds took Bel Geddes' part, Nelson and Rennie repeated their original roles, and the flick got the plum Radio City Music Hall spot. Alas, it didn't quite capture the stage magic; Reynolds is truly terrible, not understanding the character at all, and screenwriter Richard Breen cut a good amount of Kerr's sparkling dialogue.

So, why would I want to watch the thing? Well, Nelson is still wonderful, and I savor the dialogue that's left from the play. The movie has never been commercially available on videotape (my copy comes from a TV broadcast), let alone DVD. If you can ever see a production of the play -- they're rare now -- attend with someone you like and, by final curtain, you'll both be in love.

The plot: Bob McKellaway, who runs a small New York publishing house, has been audited by the IRS, which doubts that $5,000 worth of his checks were really for business expenses. Trouble is, Bob's ex-wife Mary signed many of the checks, so their attorney Oscar Nelson has asked her to come from Philadelphia to see if she can remember them. This happens just before Bob and his new fiancée, Tiffany Richards, are planning to weekend in Goshen. (In a prescient move by Kerr, Tiffany is a health food freak whose idea of a cocktail is one made of raw milk, Brewer's yeast, and wheat germ.)

A poster from the film version
of Mary, Mary
Bob believes that Tiffany is right for him in a way that Mary wasn't: "I married Mary because she was so direct and straightforward and said just exactly what she meant." When Oscar asks why he divorced her, he says, "Because she was so direct and straightforward and said just exactly what she meant." Checking out the checks inevitably starts the ex-couple reminiscing about good times together -- until they're interrupted by Dirk Winston, a fading movie star. ("I can gain weight from two Bayer aspirins.") He wants to leave Hollywood ("I'm the sinking ship deserting the rats"), so he's written his memoirs and hopes that ol' Navy buddy Bob will publish them. Bob doesn't like what he's read. "It''s...?" he stutters, only to have Dirk interrupt, "Is 'lousy' the word you're groping for?"

Lousy also describes Bob's finances. "It's not just that you can't support another wife," Oscar says. "You'd be ill-advised to buy a canary." Bob protests that he can remarry, for this is a free country, to which Oscar replies: "People get the most erroneous ideas from popular songs. If all you've got is the sun in the morning and the moon at night, you're in trouble."

Meanwhile, Mary is impressing Dirk: "Your real name is Winston Krid; Dirk is 'Krid' spelled backwards." When Dirk asks how she knows this, Mary explains, "I have a head full of the most useless information." He asks her for a date and agrees to pick her up at the apartment in a half-hour. Before that happens, though, Mary fights with Bob and storms out of the apartment -- then returns. "Having made my dramatic exit," she says, "I realized that this is where I'm being picked up."

Bob, with those Goshen plans, offers Mary the apartment to save her a hotel bill. She still has her keys, so she says yes. Bob later makes Dirk an offer, as well: If he'll marry Mary, thus saving Bob $5K in alimony, Bob will publish Dirk's book. Dirk agress to the deal, and why not: We can see that he's genuinely interested in Mary. When Bob realizes this, he's infuriated -- even though he's supposedly moved on to Tiffany. As the first act ends, it's clear to the audience that these Bob and Mary broke up prematurely and really belong together.

Act II begins with Dirk and Mary returning to the apartment after their date. It's been snowing heavily, so they camp out there. She jokes when Dirk compliments her, because her awkward adolescence has kept her from feeling attractive. ("For two years running, in the school play, I got picked to play the consumptive orphan.") Dirk suddenly kisses her, pulls back and says, "Quick! Before you lose your nerve!" and then kisses her again. Meanwhile, the snowstorm is so severe that the thruway has been closed, so Bob returns to the apartment and finds Dirk there. After Dirk leaves, the jealous Bob says to Mary: "Does it seem likely that a movie idol would one-two-three fall in love with you?" Mary fights back tears while answering, "I guess I thought so. Isn't that the height of something or other?"

Bob's sorry and soon has a realization that would be a hot women's magazine topic in years to come: "It's strange we talked so much without communicating." Mary starts criticizing his bedroom manner, which causes him to say, "Look, I didn't mean to bring out your heavy artillery." Still, he brings out his own heavily artillery to insult Dirk; as he later confesses to Mary, "It was not my finest hour." At any rate, seeing Mary in pajamas makes Bob feel so lusty that he storms out as Act II ends.

Mary the First: Barbara Bel Geddes
Act III (remember three-act plays?) begins with Tiffany arriving and blithely assuming that Mary and Bob have slept together. Mary's astonished, as is Bob when he returns -- though each is desperately searching for a cigarette. (That's one way in which the play has certainly dated.) They find their smokes but Bob still has a headache, so he takes some aspirin -- except that he mistakenly swallows sleeping pills. When Dirk arrives and asks Mary to accompany him to New Orleans, Bob doesn't want it to happen, so he struggles to stay awake long enough to lock Mary in the closet and throw the key out the window.

I won't tell how it all works out happily, though a careful reader might figure it out from my description so far. But I will tell what a profound impact the play had on me when I saw it in April 1963, with Biff McGuire (who's become William Biff McGuire and got a Tony nomination for The Young Man from Atlanta) as Bob; Martha Scott (Emily in the Our Town movie) as Mary; and Michael Evans (a Higgins during the Broadway run of My Fair Lady) as Dirk. All were wonderful, but the play was the thing for me; I came out spouting Kerr's wit for all to hear. From then on, any time I had to describe one of my painful mistakes, I'd say, "It was not my finest hour." Let someone try a euphemism on me and I'd rebut, "Is 'lousy' the word you're groping for?" And many a maid in Arlington, Massachusetts got kissed not once but twice by me after hearing, "Quick! Before you lose your nerve!"

Mary's legacy lives on. Whenever someone harshly argues with me, I'll accuse him of bringing out his "heavy artillery." If something unexpected happens, I'll inevitably say, "Isn't that the height of something or other?" Should friends try to remember, say, the name of the Seesaw director dropped in Detroit and I come up with Ed Sherin, I'll follow it with, "I have a head full of the most useless information." And when I've left a house after having made my goodbyes to one and all but then find that I must return to retrieve something I've forgotten, I always say, "Having made my dramatic exit..."

So thank you, Mrs. Kerr, for making me seem witty all these years. Tonight, in honor of you, I'll take out my 50-cent paperback and reread Mary, Mary in a volume that also has your King of Hearts (which isn't the musical) and Goldilocks (which is). To the rest of you, I say: If you can't find this anthology, try for the Mary, Mary Doubleday hardcover that went into three printings. After all, why should I corner the market on bright lines? You too can amaze your friends and confound your enemies with Jean Kerr's wonderful, warm wit.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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