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Life in a Marital Institution

James Braly's affable monologue considers the complexities involved in keeping a marriage intact. logo
James Braly in
Life in a Marital Institution
(© Andrew Schwartz)
For a few decades now I've been insisting to dubious friends and acquaintances that everyone on the planet has a story to tell. In my fervor, I've argued that if the teller digs deeply enough, the story will be well worth listening to. Nevertheless, for the first 10 or 15 minutes of James Braly's Life in a Marital Institution (20 Years of Monogamy in One Terrifying Hour), I worried that my theory was being tested and found wanting. By the end of the hour-long 59E59 Theater chat, however, the monologist -- once a corporate speech writer -- pulled it out. But only just -- and more for the affable manner in which he delivers it than for the autobiographical information disclosed.

Not that what he talks about isn't often serious. Indeed, he divulges quite personal details about his behavior during a courtship of and 20-plus-years marriage to a woman named Susan. He intertwines that testimony with recalling the day his sister Kathy, dying of cancer and on a Dilaudid drip, wed her avaricious boyfriend while the dismayed Braly family looked on at a hospital bedside. Switching between the tale's two strands, he fills in the details of that drama-packed event, but he really uses it as a back-up illustration of his attitude towards the boundless astonishments of love and marriage. His more immediate study is the alliance with Susan, a clearly intelligent and appealing woman who seems constantly to try his patience and whose patience he seems habitually to try.

A large part of Braly's confessional hour is devoted to recounting a vacation Susan and he spent with a woman they met on a trip to Positano. She was called France, and she was someone after whom James lusted openly, so openly that he painstakingly contrived not to let her see his thin chest when they went swimming because he worried it might disappoint her. He reports he almost succumbed to the temptation of an affair with "what may be the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." His ultimate decision not to go farther than a few kisses and some finger-sucking explains the solo-show's long-winded title. It gets to the heart of his fascination with the complexities involved in keeping a marriage intact. It's a monumental question for which he never finds an answer and seems the more content for all that.

Among the chapters included in the story of his life with Susan is the home delivery of their second son, Owen, which may be the biggest patience-tryer of their continuing union. This leads to his mentioning that Owen's placenta remains frozen in the Braly refrigerator, and that leads to extended coverage of a dinner James and Susan have with Upstate New York neighbors where the conversation includes the pleasures of placenta-eating. "It was more tender than filet mignon, but not at all mushy like liver," he recalls one diner remarking. My guess is that for Braly's auditors, this eye-popping -- perhaps even mouth-watering -- sequence will be the one remembered when the rest of Braly's expounding fades from memory.

Okay, it's all somewhat interesting, but let's be honest about the stand-up routine Braly is doing. And, yes, this is a stand-up routine, despite director Hal Brooks' keeping the talkative guy on the move and lighting designer Colin D. Young's establishing various areas for Braly to inhabit as a substitute for genuine action. Sure, the routine is indisputably identifiable and -- when he discusses his devotion to wife and sister -- even moving.

Still, while listening to it, I started thinking Braly's story wasn't any more recognizable or moving than a telephone conversation I'd had earlier in the week with a friend also dealing with a dire family situation and describing it just as urgently and at times with the kind of humor people need to muster in times like these. Why was I listening to Braly from a stage when what he had to say wasn't appreciably more stage-necessary than my friend's story -- or, for that matter, any heart-felt story told at a 12-step meeting?

Yet, there Braly was -- tall, good-looking, with a quick smile and lots of gestures. Gabbing away in smartly-turned phrases and ready to laugh at himself as quickly as at others, he simply wasn't someone I was ready to dismiss. Then, the thought crossed my mind that he was actually confirming my everyone-has-a-story-to-tell belief. For the therapeutic value to both teller and listeners, anyone inclined to be congenially forthcoming about the positive and negative experiences that inevitably crop up in a life should be encouraged to do so, and that includes James Braly.

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