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Mary-Louise Parker in Reckless
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Mary-Louise Parker is to the present-day theater what Julie Harris was to Broadway during the '50s and '60s. Like Harris, she returns to the boards regularly, always in roles either subtly or blatantly different from previous parts she's played; she bestows on the works, whether top- or lower-drawer, her intelligence and skill, infusing them with an irresistible charm. To some extent she may spread her talent this side of the continent because, again like Harris, she isn't Hollywood catnip: When Prelude to a Kiss was filmed (with its New York director, Norman René, helming), Meg Ryan usurped Parker's assignment, and Gwyneth Paltrow will soon show up on celluloid in the Proof role that won Parker a Tony Award.

Well, Hollywood's short-sightedness is Manhattan's good fortune. It's also a broad stroke of luck for playwrights and directors. Those on whom the Parker sun is currently shining are Craig Lucas and Mark Brokaw; they're the author and director of Reckless, which the Manhattan Theatre Club and Second Stage are now reviving, perhaps solely due to Parker's availability. (When Reckless was filmed in 1995, Parker had a supporting role but Mia Farrow had the lead.) If it weren't for Parker conferring her considerable grace on Reckless as if appearing in that old-fashioned stage item known as a vehicle, there would be few other reasons for hauling Lucas's 1980s comedy-drama out of mothballs. Not that it's a downright poor piece of writing; it has the twee appeal of a surreal sitcom. But that's not saying much in its favor, is it? Add in the rigors that it imposes on an audience to figure out what Lucas is getting at with his rambling plot, and you have something that feels mighty negligible. (Note that several plot points of Reckless, with which many audience members are already familiar from previous stage productions of the play and/or the film version, will be mentioned in this review.)

Rachel (Parker) -- who also gets to call herself Mary Ellen, Cheryl, Mrs. Mancini, and Eve -- discovers one Christmas, as she's babbling about her unbounded happiness to preoccupied husband Tom (Thomas Sadoski), that he's taken out a contract on her life. Slipping from the bedroom window in nightgown and slippers and leaving her two boys behind, she accepts a lift from Lloyd (Michael O'Keefe) and then shelter with him and his deaf girlfriend Pooty (Rosie Perez), who eventually turns out not to be deaf but is only faking it for Lloyd's sake. On subsequent Christmases, Rachel continues losing people to whom she's become attached; this sheep in Job's clothing is gradually reduced to silence herself. She pulls out of it and finds her footing as a counselor, just as a young man who may be from her past arrives and makes her happy once more.

As it unfolds on Allen Moyer's adaptable Country Living-style set (with snow falling almost non-stop), to the accompaniment of David Van Tieghem's seasonal music, Reckless often hints teasingly at its purpose. Early on, Rachel asks, "Do you think we ever really know people?" Sometime later, she appears with Lloyd and Pooty on a game show called Your Mother or Your Wife? and is asked a series of questions geared to judge how well she knows the other members of what's she's pretending is her immediate family. Garbed by costumer Michael Krass as the planet Venus, she answers all queries correctly; though she clearly didn't know hubby Tom, she seems to have a firm grasp on Pooty and Lloyd. But, though Lloyd thinks that he knows Pooty inside out, he doesn't. Lucas is writing about the fact that other people are only intermittently knowable and, consequently, about the adjustments necessary to accept the daunting universal condition.

Michael O'Keefe and Mary-Louise Parker in Reckless
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lucas has Rachel visit several doctors -- all of them played by Debra Monk -- and one shrink pontificates, "Life's been reckless." Maybe that's what the playwright is also saying in his whimsical way: Random action is another hurdle with which humanity is constantly confronted. Throughout the script, there are several references to dreams. (It's particularly amusing when Rachel unloads her actual story on the first doctor, only to have the confident professional ask, "When did you have this dream?") Lucas has created a play that one could be forgiven for thinking might all be meant as a dream -- though one less reminiscent of Calderon's Life is a Dream than of the sing-song "Row Row Row Your Boat," the last phrase of which instructs that "Life is but a dream."

Mark Brokaw, who guided Parker through Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, again collaborates with her here. Whereas the actress played a no-nonsense adolescent then, she's now utterly winning as a good woman on a bad trip; some of her line readings are so quirkily amusing that they provoke applause. Brokaw sees to it that the rest of the actors also look as if they know what Lucas is suggesting, even if the audience doesn't. Michael O'Keefe is a likeable Tom and is convincingly deft at signing; Rosie Perez, also a facile signer, is witty as someone feigning deafness. Debra Monk, Olga Merediz, Jeremy Shamos, and Thomas Sadoski, playing a few parts each, exhibit strong sketch-comedy chops.

The theater-maven ladies seated behind me may have the right idea about Reckless. During their intermission discussion of the play's meaning, one of them declared with ironclad authority, "It's a comment on society, his take on the world we live in." I'll go with that.

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