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Crazy Mary

A.R. Gurney's new play is ultimately unconvincing, despite some riveting moments and a superb performance by Kristine Nielsen. logo
Sigourney Weaver and Kristine Nielsen in Crazy Mary
(© Joan Marcus)
A.R. Gurney has written some of America's memorable plays from The Dining Room to The Cocktail Hour to Indian Blood. Unfortunately, his latest offering, Crazy Mary, now at Playwrights Horizons, does not belong in that hallowed group. Yes, it has the expected elements of a declining WASP culture, with characters both trying to escape their upper-crust heritage and hang on to it. And, yes there are riveting moments of theater -- but not enough of them to make this rather unconvincing tale the meaningful play that Gurney intends it to be.

The play begins with Lydia (Sigourney Weaver) , a Buffalo-based divorcee, and her college-aged son, Skip (Michael Esper) being ushered into what once was the library of a stately mansion, and is now a fading sanatorium for the wealthy (designed to the last detail by John Lee Beatty). Mother and son have come to see Mary (Kristine Nielsen), their distant relative who has been confined within its walls for more than 30 years.

Through a series of deaths in the family, Lydia has become the sole trustee of her cousin's considerable estate. She has come to satisfy herself that Mary's money is being properly spent. If it isn't, however, well, Lydia is divorced and struggling financially, and Skip is at Harvard having to work while going to school to pay the bills.

In another play, by another playwright, the smell of cash would be the pivotal plot point. Having Mary's money would solve a great many problems for Lydia and her son. But Lydia is far too WASPY to grasp at it and her son, who would rather not be at Harvard anyway, is far too idealistic to want to plunder Mary's fortune. Gurney is not so much about plot as he is about themes, and the issue at hand in Crazy Mary is responsibility. How do we help other people? Where do we draw the line?

When we first meet Mary she is virtually comatose, being looked after by Pearl, a dedicated nurse (Myra Lucretia Taylor), and Jerome, a good-natured doctor (Mitchell Greenberg). But, well-meaning as they are, neither truly has a clue about how to help Mary get better. Although she knew Lydia when they were children together, it is meeting Skip that sparks Mary's reawakening. Intrigued by the young man, she privately implores him to come back to see her. He does, repeatedly, and she blossoms.

Ultimately, each of the characters comes up against the issue of their professional and personal responsibilities. Lydia must balance her desire to help her son be all that she wants him to be versus her son's desire to be something different. Meanwhile, Skip finds a kindred spirit in Mary, but he might very well take unfair advantage of her. The doctor and the nurse skirt some serious ethical issues in their quest to aid Mary's cure.

Director Jim Simpson keeps the conversations kinetic by creating subtle but steady movement during every scene; but he can't make the characters or their actions completely convincing. As it stands, the relationship between Lydia and Skip is written too baldly, and Weaver's acting in the opening sequences is a bit too brittle.

For her part, Nielsen gives her best performance since Betty's Summer Vacation. True, when she goes for the comedy, she falls back on her standard mannerisms. Still, she does a beautiful job underscoring Mary's vulnerability. Esper is quite winning as Skip, especially when he's playing with Nielsen; Greenberg is consistently affable; and Taylor comes across as warmly appealing.

Despite its flaws, Gurney's work is always worth seeing. In short, you wouldn't be making a crazy decision if you buy a ticket to Crazy Mary.

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