Lots of folks know Wallace Shawn's acting. He has played everyone from the sardonic whining Vayna in Vayna on 42nd Street to the balding, nerdy high school teacher in Clueless. But as funny as his closet of strange performances is, Shawn's writing is even better. And Infernal Bridegroom's riotous production of his Marie and Bruce is a perfect entree into the spiny wit of Shawn's verbal imagination.
This tart green plum of a play concerns the rage and insane alienation that come from the trenches of married life. The lights come up on married couple Marie (Tamarie Cooper) and Bruce (Charlie Scott). In the wee hours of the morning Bruce sleeps and snores and sweetly purrs like a contented cat in the middle of the bed, as Marie sits wide awake on a nearby couch, furiously smoking. Each little sound, each idiosyncratic meow he makes sends fingernails-across-a-blackboard shivers through Marie. Disgust curls from the corners of her pretty red mouth. And when she finally speaks, what pours from her lips is the sort of bile that comes only from too many years of intimacy. She spits out her confession straight to the audience: "Yesterday morning, this fucking pig woke me up to ask me where his typewriter was." Turns out she threw it away.
In the bed Bruce snores, tucked happily away in sleep.
She turns back to him saying, "You goddamned son of a bitch. You idiot.... You goddamned filthy shit." She goes on and on till it becomes obvious that her rage is endless, as is her lexicon of profanity.
Two things make this venomous speech hysterically funny: Cooper's fearless hold on Shawn's salacious language and her dead-on timing. In fact, Cooper has wrapped herself so deeply into the luxury of Marie's eccentricities that it's hard to imagine anyone else in this role. Angry, belligerent, intelligent and yet weirdly repressed, Marie is incapable of acting on her own impulses. Early on she announces that she plans to leave Bruce, only to spend the rest of the day and night waffling between her lust and hatred for her husband.
After Bruce rises and fetches Marie coffee, it becomes clear that these people feed off each other in the nastiest way. Whiny, sad-sack Bruce tolerates endless abuse from Marie. When he announces that he's going to lunch with his friend Roger, she rages with irony. Apparently Roger, "the world's most interesting person," is only interested in the "history of urine and feces of the 19th century." Go ahead, she says: "I know you men need time to yourselves just to suck each other off in your own little way."
Bruce never blinks. He simply nods and, in his nasally little voice, whines good-bye and blows her a kiss. During a long monologue, we find out that Bruce has his own private imaginative life. He dreams of affairs and anonymous women who occupy the rooms he glimpses through open blinds. This speech, as given by Scott, is odd, sad and riveting. Bruce is lonely and yet resigned to his lot in life. And there is something painfully truthful and funny and even skin-crawly confessional in Shawn's take on the banality of loneliness.
In the evening Marie and Bruce meet at a cocktail party, where she suddenly finds him incredibly attractive. Strangely enough, Bruce abandons Marie to a couch and then spends the evening engaged in the pursuit of other women. Marie stews in her own bitterness. She despises him and wants him at once.
This cocktail party setting allows Shawn the opportunity to satirize more than marriage. At the party we listen in on a series of inane conversations that underscore Shawn's ideas about the way we remain so alienated from one another. Language, it seems, only serves to push us away from each other. We talk and talk, and no one is listening. Whether we curse our heads off or simply chatter on, gossiping about our silly little lives, we can't ever make intimate contact with anyone. We are stuck in our own private worlds.
Once again Shawn's message is undeniably bleak, but it is also very, very funny. Jason Nodler's swiftly paced and clever direction singles out conversations with a hot bright spot that gives the party scene tremendous energy, as does the cast of revelers that includes such imaginative performers as Jim Parsons, Daniel Treadway, Troy Schulze, Michelle Edwards and Sarah Mitchell (in her farewell performance as one of Houston's most gifted young actors; she's moving to Seattle).
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John Harris's multilevel set also adds to the visual potency of this production. It gives the actors lots of room to move and places to go, which is especially impressive in the fairly small performance space at Atomic Cafe.
Amazingly, when Marie and Bruce finally arrive back at their place, they are still together. Of course, Marie spends the whole trip further humiliating Bruce, coming up with such delightful insults as, "Your face looks like a behind." But she ends up raging in silence.
It's a cynical, sad and fitting ending for a play about the failure of language. We talk and talk and giggle and curse, but no matter what words, what sounds we use, we can never find our way into each other's hearts.
Marie and Bruce runs through April 24 at Atomic Cafe, 1320 Nance Street. (713)522-8443. $9.99.