Though in recent months, I have decidedly lessened my output of theatrical criticism—a conscious choice based on a variety of factors—the fact remains that I still make an effort to see an uncommonly high amount of theatrical performance as part of my day-to-day life. Understanding that not every person has such an intense commitment to seeing the density of performances that I do, I have been considering starting a special column specifically dedicated towards recommending and reviewing productions, both in New York City and elsewhere, that I find particularly noteworthy in the interest of helping potential readers determine what theatre is worth their time and money to go and see, and a recent trip to Playwrights Horizons to see Miles for Mary was just the kind of intensely satisfying experience I needed to kick off such writings.
Originally produced at the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn in November of 2016, Miles for Mary is an ensemble-created play, set in the Phys Ed teachers’ lounge at your average, everyday high school, focusing on the efforts of six faculty members to organize the school’s annual ‘Miles for Mary’ 24-hour local-access telethon. Taking place over the course of several months through the lens of half-a-dozen-or-so real-time scenes, Miles for Mary presents itself as a calculated analysis of the destructive power of the collaborative process, through which supposedly respectable adults revert to the emotional maturity of the children they lecture in their classrooms. Scripted and acted with laser-precision by a flawlessly committed cast of six, along with the help of director and credited co-writer Lila Neugebauer, anyone with experience in group projects will find themselves squirming and sweating in witness of the sheer density of passive-aggression plainly visible only barely beneath the surface of the conversations held by these all-too-familiar characters. That is, when you’re not losing your head of laughter. Miles for Mary is one of the funniest new theatre pieces in recent memory, its deliciously nasty sense of humor spawning from the inherent comedy of seeing the most uncomfortable moments of life reflected right back onto the audience.
The success of Miles for Mary undoubtedly lies in hands of the 6-person ensemble cast, who have crafted their characters with such depth and detail that the question of the line between actor and role becomes totally irrelevant and allows moments like a twenty-minute conversation about what does and does not constitute the usage of condescension to become more electrifyingly theatrical than any play with nominally higher stakes. Director Lila Neugebauer (who has deservedly become quite the artist du jour of the 2017-2018 theatrical season) also deserves major credit for keeping the shape of the play fundamentally dramatic in such a way that the intermission-less hour and fifty minutes fly by without even the slightest fatigue, as well as navigating the boundaries between comedy and drama with an uncommon degree of sensitivity.
The Mad Ones is an ensemble theatre group dedicated to creating new works that, in their own words, “examine and illuminate American nostalgia”. Miles for Mary is their fourth full-length work and the current run at Playwrights Horizons is certainly their highest profile production to date. Whatever their next work may be, this reviewer has nothing but high expectations and even higher hopes that it will be seen by the largest audience possible. In an era when even prestigious new plays have an air of similarity about them, Miles for Mary is precisely the radical shock to the theatergoer’s system needed to remind them of the reach of the theatrical form.
Miles for Mary runs at Playwrights Horizons through February 25. Tickets and information available here.
Photo credit: The Mad Ones