Maria / Stuart

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Editorial Review

'Maria/Stuart': Another Dip in The Old Gene Pool

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

So here we are, yet again and once more, nestled in the bosom of American theater's favorite punching bag, the nutty family. You know, foul old granny is spewing her trademark venom, mom's hitting the sauce pretty hard and junior's got the hots for a girl who paddles too close to his own gene pool.

The national debt might be going nuclear and the ozone layer calling it quits, but on the nation's stages, we can't seem to curb our solipsistic enthusiasm for the skeletons in our relatives' closets. The latest evidence comes courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where Jason Grote's hyperventilating comedy, "Maria/Stuart," is receiving its world premiere.

To make a mark these days in this oversubscribed genre, a playwright cannot merely talk. He has to shout at the top of his lungs. (Case in point: Tracy Letts's amusing if overpraised, reflexively button-pushing family satire, "August: Osage County.") On this score, Grote's play meets the contemporary standard, at least: He conjures in his suburban family portrait -- complete with ravenous, handless Aunt Sylvia, who shovels dip onto chips with prosthetic hooks -- the required carnival-like grotesques.

Mind you, Grote is a vivid wordsmith, and, with the assistance of his director, Pam MacKinnon, he looks with admirable ingenuity for new psychological cracks in the plaster: The crazy clan of "Maria/Stuart" is tormented by an apparition that might be the scabrous byproduct of negative family dynamics. (The shape-shifting creature, by the way, comes up with a ripely funny method of sending messages, one that suggests it is nearly up to date with the advance of technology.)

Still, it's a measure of how out of gas the subject is that Grote's considerable writerly energy strikes a vibrant chord only in fits and starts -- or when MacKinnon and one of her actors manufacture a particularly arresting bit of stage business.

Grote's signature seems to be the stirring up of social-comedy stews, fortified by literature and the occult; his densely packed mating play, "This Storm Is What We Call Progress," inflected with Jewish mysticism, was unveiled this summer by Rorschach Theatre. "Maria/Stuart," inspired very loosely by Friedrich Schiller's 1800 biographical drama, "Mary Stuart," is far more conventional as it explores superficial tensions and deeper scarring in a secular Jewish, New Jersey family that takes pride in feeding on its own.

As one of the moms of the piece repeatedly asks her grown child, in anticipation of a dreaded family get-together, "Are you going to be on my side today?"

It quickly becomes clear, though, that in the pair of American kitchens -- one in Bergen County, N.J., the other in Bucks County, Pa. -- in which "Maria/Stuart" takes place, it's every relation for him- or herself. The evocatively surrealist set by James Kronzer reinforces the idea of oppressiveness, depicting the oyster-shell and avocado-colored cabinetry in some advancing state of metastasis.

Because of all the backstabbing, the family crest would no doubt have to sport symbols for guilt, shame and betrayal. Stuart (Eli James), a comic-book writer living with his mother, harbors all kinds of taboo attractions, about which his cousin Hannah (Meghan Grady), a waitress, might be ambivalent. Their lonely mothers, Marnie (Amy McWilliams) and Lizzie (Emily Townley), share an affection for the bottle but not for their childlike sister, Sylvia (Naomi Jacobson), who after a train accident was shunted off to an institution.

They all drag themselves to the mirthless festivities for the pain-in-the-neck matriarch, Ruthie, whose irritating habits -- she picks grapes, and instead of eating them, rolls them in her fingers -- offer fiendish formulas for homicidal fantasies. As played by the impish Sarah Marshall, Ruthie might even explode the benevolent facade of a saint.

The performances are for the most part convincing, especially that of Townley, who as a bitter middle-aged divorcee cusses, sneers and seethes in direct proportion to her sense of hopelessness and self-loathing. McWilliams exhibits the requisite hardness; Grady and James persuasively evoke the burdens bequeathed to the emergent generation. Outfitted with metal armature, the always resourceful Jacobson comes up with funny physical bits, although she perhaps betrays a degree too much intelligence for a woman of Sylvia's immaturity.

The supernatural dimension of "Maria/Stuart" not only helps to explain the Maria of the title; it also gives MacKinnon and her lighting designer, Colin K. Bills, license for a few snazzy effects. But the elements are not integrated into the production with consistent effectiveness. And they can't entirely camouflage the shopworn core of the play, with its melodramatic reliance on a distasteful family secret, one that fails to provide the disturbing kind of undercurrent the dramatist seems to be counting on.

Over the course of nearly 2 1/2 hours, in fact, you're never rewarded with that exhilarating sensation of going where you haven't been before. Even on the off chance that you've never traveled the New Jersey Turnpike, you'll recognize the exit for "Maria/Stuart" all too well.

Maria/Stuart, by Jason Grote. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Sound and original music, Matthew M. Nielson; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; fight choreography, John Gurski. About 2 hours, 20 minutes.