If you’re a Shakespeare in the Park kind of person, your summer will be bookended by two characters, the villain Iago and the heroine Viola, making the koanlike confession “I am not what I am.” If, in between, you happen by Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, you’ll hear something very similar from the unmoored protagonist of Tracy Letts’s intermittently compelling, ultimately vanilla Mary Page Marlowe. “I’m not the person I am,” Mary Page tells her shrink about halfway through the play, “I’m just acting like a person who is a wife and a mother … I know the levers to pull to be that person. I’m a great actress.” It’s the only time Mary Page professes greatness at anything: She’s an accountant from Ohio whose life seems to have taken its own predictable course — marriage, kids, affairs, alcohol, perpetually deferred dreams of a trip to Paris — without her holding the rudder. “I didn’t decide on any of it,” she tells the shrink, “All of it happened to me and I went along with it.” Socrates and Thoreau had epigrams for unexamined, quietly desperate lives like Mary Page’s, and the thrust of Letts’s play is to lay out the stages of an admittedly unremarkable life, revealing its breadth, depth, and dignity.
Breadth he achieves through the story’s central gimmick, which is that six different actors portray Mary Page Marlowe over the course of her life — well, six plus one whimpering plastic baby doll that goes uncredited as her 10-month-old incarnation. Like so many of the play’s governing ideas, this device is essentially spelled out for us in the shrink scene, which lands midway through both play and Mary Page’s life (the story’s episodes don’t unfold chronologically, but Letts purposefully provides an unmissable midpoint). There, 36-year-old Mary Page (in the person of the TV star Tatiana Maslany, brooding and brittle with a Melanie Griffith–in–Body Double haircut) describes the feeling of having lived many different lives, all of them in their own separate compartments. “It’s not relevant, that’s what I’m telling you,” she insists to her therapist after bringing up a secret abortion from her college days, “It feels like a different person who was going through that.”
It’s not hard to pick out the big themes in Letts’s play, which is part of what can make it feel surface-y despite its attempt to go deeper into a life not quite lived. But as Mary Page and her shrink discuss her different compartmentalized lives, or as the pregnant question “What do you want?” becomes a clear refrain, or as 19-year-old Mary Page and her college friends play with a Tarot deck (“It’s up to you to decide what you want to do,” says the sweet-natured Lorna, while the more worldly Connie adds, “They’re already dealt! Nothing we do is gonna change the cards!”) — it can start to feel like Letts is underlining his play’s motifs in red. This makes Mary Page’s story, despite the strong work of a number of individual actors, dispiritingly easy to digest. Like a simple carbohydrate, a superior doughnut, it’s got a structure and a taste we recognize, it’s quick to absorb, and it doesn’t stick with you long.
It’s also walking a difficult line with Mary Page herself. Unlike (say) Iago and Viola, Mary Page Marlowe doesn’t know herself at all and so, to a certain extent, neither can we. “What would you say if I said I wanted to get to know you better?” asks Dan, 27-year-old Mary Page’s boss, with whom she’s just finished a mid-workday tryst in a cheap hotel. All cool avoidance combined with flat, sexy playacting, this Mary Page (also Maslany) answers with a deadness in her voice: “I’d say I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.” It’s a tossed-off cliché, but in fact it’s her own biggest fear: that when it comes to who she really is, there’s no there there.
Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t. Even Letts may not quite know. Mary Page Marlowe has the feeling of a character he’s working around, rather than living inside — like a woman he might have known once whose unexceptional persona intrigued him, whose history he’s trying to piece out by way of explanation. We get those pieces, but they’re like snapshots, circumstances captured from the outside: a troubled veteran father and a neglected, embittered mother; a marriage proposal turned down in college in the name of independence, and another accepted right after for reasons unknown; hidden, unfulfilling affairs; a divorce; a lost child; a drinking problem with major consequences; another divorce, and so on. Letts is both a kind of photographer, arranging the album of a life he can’t fully penetrate, and, paradoxically, the creator of that life and its manipulator. “What I’m asking you is, who is the person pulling the levers?” says the shrink in response to Mary Page’s feelings of lack of agency, and Mary Page gives the answer she almost always gives, when she doesn’t avoid a question altogether: “I don’t know.”
She’s got inklings, though, that her gender might have something to do with the course her life has taken: “I just think that, as a woman, a lot of our roles get stipulated for us,” she muses to her shrink, and later she tells her daughter that she’s proud of her for being her own person. “That’s not easy, you know,” she says, “For us.” It’s a tricky dance Letts is doing, as the man who’s literally pulling the levers and stipulating the roles in Mary Page’s life, while she grapples with her flickering consciousness of the fact that she’s allowed men to do just that. I wish I could have seen the character rebel against the playwright a little more, do a little more metaphorical pushing against the fourth wall, but Mary Page — every Mary Page — ultimately remains in her compartment.
And so the task of putting a human being, or several human beings, in the frame of Letts’s snapshots falls to the ubiquitous director Lila Neugebauer and her ensemble, and scene to scene, their work is consistently solid and sometimes full of intimate pathos. Among the Mary Pages, Kellie Overbey and Susan Pourfar create the most profound revelations as the character’s 50-year-old self and her incarnation at two crucial points in her 40s, respectively. Perhaps it makes sense that Mary Page’s younger selves, even the top-billed and talented Maslany, seem to bleed together, while the most affecting moments in Letts’s play come from the actors playing the protagonist during middle age: This is a woman who’s only beginning to articulate her sense of emptiness and drift at age 36, who’s unwittingly set up a precarious row of pins which, as she ages more fully, start to topple and fall.
Pourfar — who was a highlight of a different Mary play for me last year — is painfully reserved as the Mary Page who opens the play by explaining to her kids, in a booth at a Denny’s, that she and her husband are getting divorced. “That’s not possible … That’s not what your father wants,” she tells her hurt, on-the-attack teenage daughter, Wendy (the forceful Kayli Carter), who wants to know why she can’t finish high school in Ohio with her dad. “So he gets exactly what he wants,” snaps Wendy, “Why can’t you just say what you want?” Pourfar and Carter have a sharp rapport — reprised later in the play when Wendy comes to support her mother, while Mary Page downs bourbon and waits desperately by the phone for some word of her younger child, Louis, who’s run away — and Neugebauer doesn’t overplay the poignancy inherent in their tense mother-daughter relationship or let it slip into mawkishness.
She also keeps things crisp, up to a point, in Overbey’s scene with Mary Page’s second husband, Ray (David Aaron Baker, effective as an aging, conventional alpha male overcome by emotion). Overbey’s Mary Page has a black eye and a cast on one wrist, and she’s facing jail time for a car crash she caused while driving drunk. She begins the scene coolly, pragmatically, walking through the facts of the situation and how they add up, like the accountant she is. But as the panicked Ray continues to plead and equivocate, and seek out impossible solutions, and finally to accuse and blame, she cracks. “Don’t tell me how I feel! You don’t know how I feel! You don’t know anything about the way I feel!” Overbey screams, rending the scene in two with a sudden geyser of suppressed rage. She says it again and again — Don’t tell me how I feel — and Ray cowers in response, and so do we. It’s a shattering moment, and its real tragedy is that in its aftermath, Mary Page still can’t express herself. “I’m. I have a lot of. There is a lot on my mind. Right now,” she falters, coming down from her thunderous outburst. Later, in her oldest incarnation, played by Blair Brown, a hospitalized, near-death Mary Page will have no words when a nurse asks her what she learned along the way. She’ll just turn her head and weep.
In these moments, the play is getting at something horribly tender — call it the tragedy of the unarticulated life. But with Brown’s iterations of the character — she gets three, more than any other actor, at 59, 63, and 69 years old — Letts shies away from this hard yet fertile terrain and heads toward more feel-good-y pastures. Brown’s Mary Janes are, with the exception of tiny moments, overwhelmingly sanguine. She’s now a nice old lady who watches House on the couch with Husband No. 3 and has charmingly mundane interactions with young sales clerks. Surely the suggestion is that for every nice, normal old lady you meet, there are a plethora of troubled, searching, unfulfilled past selves underneath — but the final effect is still one of sweetening and softening. It’s a kind of “At the end of the day, everything is okay” messaging that frees us of the grip of the play’s more trenchant moments. Mary Page Marlowe is theatrically tidy and, in the end, despite its compartmentalized strengths, emotionally unchallenging in a way that might have you you feeling something akin to its protagonist — again during her conversation with the shrink — as you exit the theater:
SHRINK: And something about that feels wrong to you?
MARY PAGE: No. Did I say wrong?
SHRINK: Seems like it bothers you.
MARY PAGE: Eh. Maybe. [Laughs, thinks.] Just seems like, why did I bother, you know?
Mary Page Marlowe is at Second Stage Theater.