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Miles for Mary

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Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
155 W. 65th St., New York, NY 10023 40.773682 -73.983724
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Advance Tickets Recommended

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1 at 66th St.-Lincoln Center

Official Website

Thru 2/4 Tue-Sat, 7:30pm; Sat-Sun, 2pm; Sun, 7pm


Is there a German compound noun for that movie or play or show or thing you’re fascinated by and even glad to have experienced but have no desire ever to see again? It’s not an insult: For me, a whole variety of technically masterful works fall under that hard-to-summarize but easy-to-feel category, from most Paul Thomas Anderson films to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty to pretty much every season finale of BoJack Horseman. Now Miles for Mary joins that list. Collaboratively devised by the theater company The Mad Ones, Miles for Mary is currently ringing in the Redux Series at Playwrights Horizons, a vital new initiative that brings back Off–Off Broadway productions originally produced elsewhere for second, often longer runs. It’s a fantastic idea — far too many thrilling, smaller-scale shows barely have the time to generate word of mouth before they disappear, and in our New Play Development–obsessed environment, few big theater companies are providing time and resources to projects that don’t have the words “world premiere” or “grant-winning artist” attached to them. With Redux Playwrights is doing both, and it’s exciting to see Miles for Mary, which first played at the Bushwick Starr in 2016, getting another life onstage.

It’s also frequently excruciating. The Mad Ones — who have no fewer than four artistic directors and who build their shows, according to their dramaturge Sarah Lunnie, using a “rigorous, idiosyncratic process” of “collaboration and consensus” — have created a meticulously observed, virtuosically performed ode to miscommunication. The play is about how we talk to one another, how we (almost always) fail to listen, and how just plain goddamn infuriating it is to try to get anything important done while maintaining the good fellowship of a group of eccentric, fragile human creatures. That the characters of Miles for Mary are a sextet of 1980s PE teachers in a midwestern high school is almost incidental. They could be a theater company.

In fact, they are. Like The Mad Ones every time they come together to make a play, the motley band of well-intentioned educators at the center of Miles for Mary have a passion project. They’re organizing the ninth annual Garrison High School Miles for Mary Telethon, a fundraising effort named for a star-athlete student who died in a car crash during her senior year. That was in 1980. Now it’s 1989, the desire to honor Mary’s memory by raising money for college athletic scholarships is higher than ever, and the telethon committee is ambitious. As Sandra — the math teacher/track-and-field coach who wears the same blue polyester tracksuit every day — puts it enthusiastically, “I wanna be part of a committee that values themselves and their purpose … I’m really, really excited by that! I just wanna vote on MORE.”

Though the committee members are a distinctive bunch, they share a penchant for enthusiasm without specificity and a tractor-beam pull toward cliché. A poster on the wall of the phys-ed-teachers’ lounge in which they gather reads “BE POSITIVE. DON’T PANIC.” After Sandra’s encouragement during their initial meeting, another message, printed on a dot-matrix printer and pieced together with tape, appears above the door: “DO MORE.” The scenic design by Amy Rubin and the costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter are flawlessly on point in their conjuring of the pre-digital 1980s. We all recognize those fluorescent lights and garish colored wall tiles, that overhead projector, those inspirational posters, that clunky exercise bike in the corner. And even if we didn’t live through the shoulder pads and overfloofed bangs, we know them, and The Mad Ones, whose mission involves “examining and illuminating American nostalgia,” demonstrate a Fabergé-egg-level attention to detail in bringing their world to life.

Director Lila Neugebauer (one of those four artistic directors) excels at drawing nuanced, sensitive work out of her ensembles, and under her guidance all six actors turn in performances as meticulous as the set on which they move. They keep us constantly flinching with the painful familiarity of their characters, their ever-backfiring attempts at teamwork, their susceptibility to blandly inspiring coach-speak, their easily bruised egos. Each one is an agonizing little work of art, both parodic and all too real, like the hapless souls that people shows like The Office, Party Down, and Arrested Development.

There’s Stephanie Wright Thompson’s Sandra, with her brisk straight talk and her always-full plastic travel mug. There’s Michael Dalto’s well-meaning mediator, David, whose “Keep Calm and Carry On” tone can veer into a kind of condescension to which he’s entirely deaf. There’s Rod, the blond hunk who jumps on the stationary bike to work out his frustration, played by Joe Curnutte with the furrowed brow of an alpha who’s genuinely struggling to be a team player. There’s Brenda, the loopy, easily hurt guidance counselor whose performance by Amy Staats is all the more impressive for the fact that 90 percent of it is through a speakerphone (Brenda suffered an accident that’s keeping her bedridden for the whole of the telethon committee’s planning process). And there’s husband-and-wife duo Ken Wyckoff and Julie Wyckoff-Barnes, in a pair of performances by Stacey Yen and Marc Bovino that bring Miles for Mary to its boiling point. Yen’s newcomer to the committee, the type-A but accommodating Julie, and Bovino’s moody, explosively fragile nerd of an AV teacher, Ken, are a kind of Chekhov’s gun for the show. The tension they bring into the room, both individually and as a couple, is primed to erupt from the very beginning. And erupt it ultimately does when Ken attempts to teach the group how to use a new phone — a lesson that becomes a cringe-inducing fiasco of wounded ego, finally revealed grievances, accusations, resentments, and misplaced attempts at reconciliation.

The scene is a symphony of almost unwatchable awkwardness, headed up by Bovino in a brilliant aria of butthurt as the injured, insecure Ken. It’s technically a stunning feat, both of ensemble writing and acting — and by the time it arrived in an hour-and-50-minute long show, I had practically nothing left to give to it. My laughter had already dried up. Here’s the rub of Miles for Mary: It’s like watching an almost two-hour episode of The Office. It’s smart, it’s barbed, it revels in the wince-worthy, helplessly funny observation of human idiocy. But there’s a reason The Office and shows of its ilk play out in 23-minute episodes. Many of us need a respite from the onslaught of discomfort specifically in order to be able not to clock out from it, to return to it later ready for more. Miles for Mary offers no relief, and I suspect it isn’t meant to. I left the theater feeling that The Mad Ones had probably achieved exactly what they set out to achieve — a virtuosic, unrelenting examination of our possibly hopeless human efforts to understand each other. I also left feeling wrung out, pondering the existence of that German word, and wondering if communication itself has become so impossible that all we have to look forward to are detailed studies of its impossibility.

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