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Theatre in Review: Mrs. Murray's Menagerie (Ars Nova/Greenwich House)

January LaVoy. Photo: Ben Arons

I've begun to think of The Mad Ones as The Passive-Aggressive Players, so expert have they become at mining unspoken conflicts and tiny acts of hostility from whatever situation they present. The company develops pieces in concert with its casts, with results that are usually uncannily lifelike and often uproarious. The previous Mad Ones opus, Miles for Mary, treated with an exacting, pointillist hilarity a series of meetings held by the organizers of a small-town charity telethon. Although Mrs. Murray's Menagerie features an entirely different situation, set of characters, and time frame, it has clearly been developed along the Miles for Mary model, with results that, alas, aren't nearly as enjoyable. Still, this exercise in hyperrealism delivers a reasonable share of priceless moments, thanks to a peerless cast under the direction of Lila Neugebauer, currently a leading ace in handling ensemble performances.

Mrs. Murray's Menagerie is the name of a beloved children's television program, and the script of the same name assembles half a dozen adults in a Philadelphia community center circa 1979 to take part in a focus group. The show is going off the air and the producers want to gauge audience reaction to two possible spinoffs. Dale, the super-slick facilitator -- one can imagine him steering contestants through a TV game show -- presides over the action, probing everyone's response to various characters -- most of which are puppets -- and formats. Each of the participants is a parent and, ostensibly, speaks for his of her child; as the session runs on, however, they increasingly reveal who they are.

Some of the fun of Mrs. Murray's Menagerie lies in watching grown-ups discuss a cutesy-to-the-point-of-inane children's program in such unintentionally revealing detail. (The two new shows under consideration, Candace's Closet and Teddy's Treehouse, seem calculated to drive mad anyone without a four-year-old in tow.) It is best enjoyed as a series of delicious character sketches, rendered by the sort of super-skilled, if largely unsung, actors who make New York theatregoing such a joy. Phillip James Brannon is Ernest, an easygoing sort who, comparing one puppet character to his sister-in-law, adds a bit of TMI before trailing off in embarrassment: "Elizabeth is very genteel. Very warm, everybody seems to get along with her. Sometimes I wonder if I picked the right one so...that's -- that's all." Joe Curnutte is the extravagantly mustachioed Roger, who is in sales; finding himself overruled by the majority in one discussion, he sinks into a childish sulk, sniping at the others and making provocative suggestions. (He is still available to hand out his business card, however.) Michael Dalto is on-target as Wayne, a salt-of-the-earth type in a trucker hat, who doesn't mind admitting that one of the Mrs. Murray characters has improved his marriage. Carmen M. Herlihy, sitting at a perfect ninety-degree angle, alternates between smiley sentiment and a deadly eye for detail; only she has noticed that Mrs. Murray has a mouse problem, a subject on which she can expound with humorous exactitude. January LaVoy is Celeste, aka Cici, who finds herself mired in an exchange with Roger regarding the "sexy" qualities of a puppet cat. And as the ill-named Gloria, Stephanie Wright Thompson, her shoulders hunched, her eyes permanently devoid of life, finds laughter in each of her brief, deadpan responses. Some of the best moments are provided by Marc Bovino as Jim, Dale's mop-topped, bespectacled, utterly woebegone assistant, who, with one arm in a sling, desperately tries to keep up while scrawling key words from the participants' reactions on a blackboard.

Any number of micro-conflicts emerge from the discussion, having to do with class, race, and sex differences, with plenty of personality clashes arising unexpectedly and out of nowhere. But if Mrs. Murray's Menagerie is a pleasure, it is an oddly muted one. Miles for Mary was founded on a series of increasingly tightening tensions that finally exploded in an all-around display of hostility that provided the perfect capper to the evening's fun and games. Mrs. Murray, in contrast, has no underlying dramatic structure; each time it looks like something might happen, it trails off in another direction. It's never dull, but it never really goes anywhere; it's a setup without a punchline, ninety minutes of exposition that ends, unresolved, in a fadeout.

In all other respects, the production is solid-to-inspired. The set, by You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek, renders with photographic reality a dreary community center meeting space, complete with a kitchen unit and upstairs office. Mike Inwood's lighting and Stowe Nelson's sound design -- which includes the jazzy, upbeat Mrs. Murray theme song ("If you believe it/You can be it!") -- are both totally solid. The standout here is Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes, which reveal plenty about the characters while having a good time with many now-inexplicable seventies styles.

If Mrs. Murray's Menagerie isn't really the right project to make the acquaintance of The Mad Ones, it will probably please the company's fans; acting students from the Tri-State Area will find much to learn from an performance style so real it is almost surreal. If its results are uneven, this remains one of our most distinctive theatrical troupes -- David Barbour

(9 April 2019)

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