Clever Girl

Modern (and occasionally cynical) audiences should celebrate the living-room plays of Jean Kerr, if for no other reason than to honor the craft of a well-educated and socially graceful New Yorker, the kind of writer who reigned over the Broadway of the 1960s, and the kind of writer who's increasingly hard to find. Married to the much admired and recently deceased New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr, Jean wrote comedies about people much like herself: well-informed on everything from literature to social psychology and relentlessly funny. Unfortunately, unlike the long-running plays of her contemporary, Neil Simon, Kerr's work has been ignored by most professional companies, falling instead into the occasional community theater season. An exception to this rule is Main Street Theater's current production of Kerr's 1961 comedy Mary, Mary, a play that cleverly and cogently recalls a time when people went to theater both to hear elegant language and to be entertained by humor that was quicker and sharper than their own.

As usual in a Main Street production, attention to detail is high, as is evidenced in the female characters' Jackie Kennedy suits and gloves and the charmingly apt reproduction of a 1960s living room: kidney-shaped coffee table, bleached mahogany end tables and a square sofa. The look sets the tone for a fast-forward flight through a comedy of a young urban couple who are about to finalize their divorce -- and at the same time are perilously close to finally communicating the underlying problem in their relationship. The living room belongs to publisher Bob McKellaway, and Mary, Mary's three acts spring from the complications surrounding the fact that: 1) as soon as the divorce goes through, Bob is getting remarried; and 2) the IRS is after him for $6,000 he claimed in business expenses. As played by Robert Skehan, Bob is a systematic kind of guy. Everything in his life runs according to a schedule, which Kerr then proceeds to disrupt through a series of highly emotional, and utterly illogical, encounters.

The first such encounter is announced by Bob's accountant, the trustworthy and sarcastic Oscar, played by a droll David Rigg. Oscar announces that Mary, Bob's soon-to-be-former spouse, is coming over to help untangle the mystery of the couple's checkbook. The temptation to relate biography to character is strong in Mary, Mary, particularly when one considers the oft-repeated anecdote about Jean's elbowing Walter during moments at the theater she thought were especially important. Mary has the ability to tell it like it is, which is entertaining for the audience and maddening for her husband. When Bob thanks her for coming over, Mary replies, "It put my mind at ease. You can't think how often I've worried about the philodendron." It's the mildest of many verbal barbs she tosses his way, the kind of commentary that evidences her intelligence, but betrays her insecurity. In pyschobabble, Mary's quipping is a classic defense mechanism.

Small and graceful, Anne Quackenbush presents a gently sarcastic Mary, allowing the audience the chance to see that despite her cutting quips, she's stuck in a holding pattern, still in love with her husband. It's a rare thing for a performer to succeed in rounding out a comic role, but this production of Mary, Mary has an ensemble of such actors. Led by Quackenbush and Jentry Brown's delightful perky vitamin queen (Bob's fiancee Tiffany), the finely calibrated cast makes the play fly right along.

If Bob's foil is the unexpected appearance of his spouse, than Mary's is the appearance of Bob's former Navy pal, the movie star Dirk Winston. Handsome and suave, Dirk is taken with Mary, an attraction that surprises her and succeeds in making Bob intensely jealous. Brian Broome fills out the role of the girl-savvy celebrity Dirk, pinning Mary on her insecurity and convincing her that she's lovely and desirable, besides being intelligent.

The heart of Kerr's play is the tension between the attraction of intellect and the attraction of kindness, the latter a quality that Bob and Mary lack. Part of what makes Mary, Mary succeed beyond the boundaries of a well-made parlor play is that the smart girl -- albeit the Elizabeth Arden-frequenting smart girl -- gets her man.

In an increasingly dour theatrical climate, a play such as Mary, Mary is easy to dismiss as fluff. Granted, fluff is something that comes in large doses with Kerr. But it's a kind of fluff that an evening with a contemporary play (The Food Chain, for instance) simply doesn't deliver. In Kerr's world, when people can't communicate their feelings, they identify and predict literary trends -- a lost, if misguided, art in most social circles. Ultimately, what makes Main Street's production of Mary, Mary rise above the saccharine is the mystery of sexual attraction, and a tight ensemble of actors who have the sophistication to see underneath their characters' urbane exteriors.

Mary, Mary plays through November 10 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706.

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Megan Halverson