theater reviews

Theater Reviews: Miles for Mary and The Homecoming Queen

Miles for Mary, back onstage at Playwrights Horizons. Photo: The Mad Ones

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.

The Homecoming Queen’s story is that of the prodigal daughter, the Americanized Nigerian woman who returns to her home country after 15 years. Kalechi is no longer the scrappy girl whose father, the chief of their village, chided her for being a “rough gal” who “wanted to be a boy.” Now she’s a best-selling, Pulitzer-nominated novelist, barking into her cellphone at her agent and wolfing down anxiety medication. She’s got no trace of Igbo, the language of her ancestors, in her accent — unless she gets mad and slips into it (which she does often). She’s bought her father a MacBook and sent him enough money to expand the family compound by eight rooms, but she calls him barely once a month. She’s all well-coiffed, well-manicured tension and she seemingly has no desire to be back in Nigeria at all — except that, as she snaps at her agent, “I just felt like I needed to come here … I don’t know why.”

Of course, she does know why, but her reasons are buried under layers of self-made, self-protective sediment. For 15 years she’s been running from a horrible trauma she suffered as a girl in this village, and her return is linked both to that past pain and to the present pain, equally repressed and sidestepped, of her father’s illness and impending death. The Homecoming Queen, by Ngozi Anyanwu, unfolds as a kind of excavation, an unfolding of its central character’s long-avoided history, the events that shaped her, that spurred both her desperate flight and her inevitable return.

Like Anyanwu, the actress Mfoniso Udofia is first-generation Nigerian-American and a lauded playwright as well as a performer (two plays from her Ufot Cycle, Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, earned acclaim as part of New York Theatre Workshop’s 2016–2017 season). The two artists have collaborated on the Now Africa Festival, which Udofia founded, and in The Homecoming Queen there’s the sense that the character of Kalechi is itself rich collaboration — a Nigerian-American writer who’s the creation of two Nigerian-American writers, both deeply invested in putting a complex, angry, wounded, determined African woman onstage. Neither Anyanwu nor Udofia cares about making Kalechi nice, and that’s both refreshing and admirable. Sometimes her meanness is shocking, but the business of the play is to examine what causes a person to build up such aggressive defenses, and to search for what might start to heal such hurt.

There’s frequently a stereotypical divide in the perception of collectively devised work and that of the pure playwright’s approach: the former loose and abstract, the latter driven and focused. Yet these two plays flip that convention on its head. Miles for Mary is as tight and tense as a circus high-wire, whereas The Homecoming Queen has the feeling of a play that, like its heroine, is still finding its way. Anyanwu, a first-generation Nigerian-American writer and actor, is working from a deeply personal place and has spoken about the fact that, with The Homecoming Queen, she set out to write a revenge play, but what came out was “a love play” and “a play about healing.” Yet even in its unevenness, The Homecoming Queen does not feel slack. There’s one kind of integrity in structural rigor and airtightness; there’s another in staying open to a story’s evolution, in letting a piece continue to morph and grow under your pen, or perhaps even into production.

The moments of pathos and brilliance just take a while to start coming. Anyanwu seems to hit her stride about halfway through, when she frees herself from the obligation to explain and starts to let the shadows of Kalechi’s past present themselves more obliquely. The play’s early scenes struggle against expositional clunkiness: “This again,” says Kalechi twice while her father gives us background, and on the phone with her agent, she’s forced into one of the oldest tricks in the book for getting information across — “Yeah, I know I have a deadline…. Yes, I brought my meds…. Hey, how much money have I made you? That’s what I thought.” As the play progresses, the What You Need to Know segments gain subtlety and nuance. References to a fire, some neighborhood boys from Kalechi’s childhood, and the content of her best seller — all crucial to the slowly forming image of her trauma — are woven in delicately, sometimes almost in passing. And the development of the enigmatic character of Beatrice, the young house girl that Kalechi’s father introduces to her as “a cousin,” is handled with real grace, aided by a particularly strong performance by the smart, sharp-eyed Mirirai Sithole.

Under the direction of Awoye Timpo, the play’s tonal register can sometimes feel blurry: Does she want to embrace a more simple, ancient storytelling style, driven by the characters and the surrounding ensemble of Igbo women? (This all-knowing, “always singing” chorus of “prophets, daughters, aunties, and mothers” is here embodied by four women, though according to Anyanwu, their numbers might increase throughout the play.) Or does she want to delve into more modern elements of design — for lack of a better metaphor, the electric rather than the acoustic? When she does the latter, the feelings of clunkiness return — as with the generic indication of flashbacks with a shift in lighting and an ominous clunk, Amatus Karim-Ali’s sound design, or the awkward signaling of time passing with an obvious ticking sound during the otherwise moving sequence of Kalechi’s father’s death. Such gestures, like some of Anyanwu’s early dialogue, feel overly indicative, a drain on the power of a story that’s actually full of heartbreaking depths and rewarding surprises.

Without giving one of these surprises away too completely, it’s enough to say that The Homecoming Queen ends with perhaps its strongest and certainly its most gut-wrenching scene. And, in a piece of beautiful irony from Anyanwu, it’s also the play’s happiest. “I believe every sad story begins with a celebration,” Beatrice says earlier in the play, quoting the opening lines of Kalechi’s novel to her. In the final moments of The Homecoming Queen, Anyanwu plays a sudden trick with time, revealing to us a different Kalechi in a different present, a life that could have been. It’s as if we’ve been rolling forward on a somber river, and all at once we’re picked up and dropped into a tributary that was blocked off years ago. The sunlight, the warmth, the sense of possibility — all are a shock to the system. It’s a fiction, but it’s a powerful one. After all, as Kalechi says, her work as a writer has been to “tell herself untrue stories and make them true.” Now, that ability to bring into life the thing that’s not yet true might be her way forward. It might be the source of her healing and the beginning, not the end, of her story.

Miles for Mary is at Playwrights Horizons.
The Homecoming Queen is at the Atlantic Theater Company.

Theater Reviews: Miles for Mary and The Homecoming Queen