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Theatre in Review: Miles for Mary (Playwrights Horizons)

Stacey Yen, Marc Bovino. Photo: Jefferson White and The Mad Ones

Miles for Mary finds comedy gold in the least likely of situations, a series of faculty meetings at an Ohio high school in 1998. The attendees are members of the planning committee for an annual telethon, named after a student who died in a car crash, which raises money for college scholarships. Sound dreary enough for you? Not in the hands of this cast, all of whom had a hand in writing the script, along with the dramaturg, Sarah Lunnie, and the director, Lila Neugebauer. The troupe is called The Mad Ones, and, based on the evidence here, they are experts at rooting out the craziness beneath the surface of everyday life.

From the first scene, which descends into a comedy of errors thanks to the fact that one of the participants is in attendance via a remarkably unreliable speakerphone, the company finds hilarity in buzzwords ("thought experiments" and "breakout sessions"), lightly veiled power plays, crossed procedural lines, and acts of passive aggression. The tone is, at first, unfailingly upbeat: When one of the members suggests getting additional corporate sponsorship, the issue goes round and round until Sandra, a gym teacher, announces, "I wanna be part of a committee that values themselves and their purpose. That's what I'm saying. I'm really, really excited by that. I just wanna vote on more." The comment is greeted with general approbation.

And so it goes, the group's can-do attitude fraying over time, as each participant pursues his or her own agenda. A session devoted to finding a theme for the event brings forth the suggestion of building it around The Peter Gabriel album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. "Isn't that about suicide?" somebody else meekly asks. As they schedule the live acts for the show, we learn that one will be "a tribute to Roman numerals." A naysayer cautions, "You just have to be careful, because a lot of people don't know what Roman numerals are. What is X, what is IV?" A Christmas party, fueled by a punch bowl filled with rum and Hawaiian punch, features a riotous exchange of gifts: Among the items are a poster decorated with images of puppies and the caption "Enthusiasm. Strike out with joy and exhilaration and others are sure to join you" and a sweatshirt that says, "Don't panic. Be positive." "Oh, that's so great. I love how we're all getting slogans," one of them comments.

The pièce de résistance comes when Ken, who can only aspire to the term "milquetoast" -- he is, after all, head of the AV club -- tries to give a tutorial on the features of a newly acquired set of telephones. Ken has already been humiliated earlier, when, hearing the committee's grandiose plans for an introductory sequence, he was forced to admit that he can't handle anything that requires more than two cameras. Standing in front of the room, the overhead projector displaying diagrams of phones to illustrate his carefully prepared talk, he is ready to geek out over such features as "hands-free speakerphone" and "exclusive holds." When the others mow him down with volleys of interruptions ("This should be its own committee. A whole separate subcommittee," says Julie, his wife), he blows up, baring months of resentment and unleashing a tsunami of recriminations. "I would just like to be treated like we're not in a remedial class," he pleads, bringing down an enormous laugh, because no one in the room can keep a pedagogical tone out of the conversation.

Even as Miles for Mary finds hilarity in these petty bureaucrats and the mind-numbing minutiae of their plans, it finds a certain sympathy for them in their undoubted good intentions. The cast seems to know everything there is to know about these characters, to the point that a brief exchange can cast a light on a troubled marriage, or a Freudian slip can reveal a teacher's sexual orientation. Joe Curnutte, as Rod, the gym teacher and sports coach, is a perfect dimwit, either when raising his hand, thumb pressed to his forehead, to ask a question (holding it there for minutes at a time) or taking to the room's exercycle to ponder life's dilemmas. Michael Dalto is grandly patronizing as David, the committee's head, who finds it increasingly impossible to wrangle these personalities. Stephanie Wright Thompson expertly deadpans her way through the role of Sandra, the female gym teacher, who acts as perennial cheerleader for the group. (Seeing Ken's phones, she says, "Oh my God. That is a game changer," before joining the chorus of those with doubts.) Stacey Yen displays plenty of high comedy expertise as Julie, who, torn between trying to manage Ken and handle the others, finally has a memorable meltdown. Special mention goes to Amy Staats as Brenda, the former committee chair, who spends most of the play on speakerphone until she arrives in the last scene to deliver the verdict on the telethon, which goes wrong for reasons I won't explain; she creates a fully formed character long before we see her.

The production benefits hugely from a detail-perfect set design by Amy Rubin that will inescapably recall to many in the audience the high schools of their youth. The faculty room is a drearily functional space, filled with inspirational posters ("Do more") and organizational charts. Through a window we can see the hallway, its uniform brick walls ameliorated only slightly by a few touches of color. Mike Inwood's lighting provides straight-up naturalism during each scene, with boldly saturated colors for the changeovers. He also apparently lights one long stretch of the script with only the light of an overhead projector. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes are true both to the period (note the big shoulders on the blouses worn by Julie and Brenda) and to the characters (Sandra and Rod are never out of gym clothes). Stowe Nelson's sound design includes ambient school sounds (chattering students, band practice), amusing PA announcements, some period pop selections, and the voice of Brenda, calling in from her home, where she is recovering from an unnamed accident.

With its faultless ear for the absurdity of mundane conversations, Miles for Mary sometimes seems like the greatest Nichols and May sketch. But everything about it has been executed with an astonishing precision, and it all contributes to the overall effect. In a season that has been rather starved for laughter, this is the funniest new show in town. -- David Barbour

(24 January 2018)

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