The set-up: It might be cold and blustery outside Catastrophic Theatre, but the weather can't match the frigid, numb-to-the-bone atmosphere inside the bedroom of Marie and Bruce. In Wallace Shawn's icy, day-in-the-life dissection of marriage (1978), wedded bliss is a phantom, as bleak as any shade this side of Dante. Dreams are quashed, expectations never fulfilled, happiness an illusion.
The execution: We meet Marie (Tamarie Cooper) and Bruce (Charlie Scott) in bed in their comfy NY apartment. Bluesy jazz plays in the background. The bed seems too small for them, already confining the couple. Marie, her arms folded with her hand on her cheek, stares at the lump next to her. It scrunches around, she hits it. Not hard, but with purpose as if to stop the thing under the covers from getting any closer. She stares out at us. Street noise echoes softly. This isn't the first time she's stayed up awake, we think. The lights go up and the play begins. Check out our interview with director Jason Nodler.
And what an aria of invective to start the show. Marie's had it, she's really had it with Bruce. In a bald declaration, she lays it all out, a harpy with a vengeance. In the nicest description of her hubby, she calls him a "god-damned, fucking irritating pig." Other distasteful epithets are spewed at the opposite side of the bed. Bruce doesn't hear her, of course, or pretends not to. "Cock-sucking turd" and "piece of shit" bounce off him. No doubt he's heard all this before. Even the part where she says she's leaving him. "I lost my life with you," she spits out with a terrible finality.
Breakfast is the same ordeal. His pajamas smell of urine, he's not a real man. "You nauseate me," she says to his face. Bruce smiles wanly behind his magazine, calls her darling, and offers to make coffee. He's either oblivious as hell or made of Kryptonite. He's off to lunch with Roger, who Marie calls the most boring person in the world, next to Bruce, of course. "I'm doing my best. I think I do, dear. I think I do, dearest." He kisses her lightly, which takes her by surprise.
He's off, leaving her alone with her toxic thoughts. She prepares for an evening cocktail party at Henry's. In another defining monologue as she changes out of her rose-patterned housecoat and into a vivid tropical-print dress, applying lipstick, dangly earrings, and absently brushing her hair, she tells of her walk to the party. She pines for a close encounter with a randy dog, and then falls into a magical sleep in a nearby garden, filled with bright flowers and insects all abuzz. Marie is more alive in her revery than her mundane existence with Bruce. Cooper holds us spellbound as she spins these alien but specific memories, casting an hypnotic spell. The play comes alive, too. Strange as these tales are, their very weirdness holds us close. What will happen next? Well, nothing, actually. We're thrown back into the couple's recurring jousting as we attend Henry's swanky party, which could be right out of a mediocre Woody Allen movie. Fatuous, these people talk but say nothing, oblivious to their empty yakking. That's the point Shawn makes, but it's as obvious as the guests themselves.
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Lubricated by many drinks, Bruce revives through his own monologue of what happened to him after lunch with Roger. Nature appears to him, too, in a part of town he never goes that smells of water and seaweed. His reverie is full of voyeurism and masturbation, both of which frustrate. The woman across the way at the hotel pulls down the shade and his self-desires fade as quickly. Back at the party, he mingles and tells stories, while Marie festers in her own world of disgust.
After the party, the topic of leaving him occurs again while they dine at their favorite restaurant. "I don't even like you...you're so mockable, my mockable boy," she taunts with more pity than anger. Bruce handles the abuse with the same sang-froid as always, eating his pasta in great gulps along with soft giggles of laughter at her melodramatics. Two men at the bar loudly discuss bodily medical issues, to whom Bruce rises to confront then backs down, earning more scorn from Marie. "You're not alive...I'm calling you dead." Slowly, the background restaurant chatter dies away. There is no sound. Marie has the last word as she describes going home after dinner, putting Bruce to bed, and sinking deep, deep into sleep. We know where we will find her tomorrow morning: sitting up in bed clutching her knees as she stares at us and then at the lump who shares the bed, and her life, pondering whether to leave him.
Reprising their roles, as does director Jason Nodler, from the 1999 Infernal Bridegroom production - Catastrophic's forerunner - Cooper and Scott discover every crumb of hurt, deception, and unrequited love required for Shawn's mordant play to take effect as well as it does. They tread lightly between comedy and out-and-out tragedy as they dissect the everyday little shocks that a relationship, married or otherwise, is forever heir to. No one really listens, Shawn says, no one pays attention. But can you blame them, when what's hurled at them is so vile, so hurtful?
The rest of the cast is comprised of Karina Pal Montano-Bowers, Greg Dean, Jeanne Harris, Kyle Sturdivant, and Abraham Zeus Zapata. Some do double duty in multiple roles, but these characters are patsies for Shawn and basically interchangeable anyway. Chris Bakos's sound design of blues, background chatter, and distant car horns, is a whole other character and should be mentioned for praise. He gives this slice of Manhattan life a very tasty earful. David Gipson's lighting adds subtle spice to the obvious bile; while Laura Fine Hawkes' fine set is upper-middle class contentment indeed with its gray-painted wood floors and tasteful bric-a-brac and kilim pillows. Marie and Bruce's marriage may be perpetually on the verge of teetering, but they teeter in style. The verdict: Intermissionless Marie and Bruce speeds along, even as it repeats itself, a day in marriage hell with no exit. That is theatrical magic to be treasured. And with these veterans at the helm, to be studied. Wallace Shawn's acid dipped marriage play peels the wallpaper through December 14 at Catastrophic Theatre, 1117 East Freeway, Main at Naylor. Purchase tickets online at catastrophictheatre.org or call 713-522-2723. All tickets are Pay As You Can.