Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary opened on Broadway in 1961, and ran for over 1500 performances. For awhile, it held the record for longest-running non-musical play in Broadway history. I really think it’s one of the classic American comedies-of-manners, in the vein of Philadelphia Story or Holiday, only of course twenty five years after those plays. It’s about the lives of upper-middle-class New York intellectuals in the early 1960s, and many of the jokes are about the lives and personalities and favorite haunts of that time and class. It’s the kind of play that Don Draper would have seen, or rather, the kind of play that his second wife Megan would have dragged him to. I’m making it sound dated, and it is, a bit, but the opening night audience at the Covey Center enjoyed it a great deal, as did my wife and I. The cultural references in the play may well seem old-fashioned. But the main characters are real and human and we do care about them. And the jokes still land.
The production, under the able direction of Barta Heiner, is first-rate, or at least has the potential to become first-rate. Opening night was marred by a few line fluffs, which threw off the actors’ comic timing on occasion. They’re fine actors, and they will adjust. See it next week, or the week following; you’ll have a delightful night in the theatre. Or better than delightful, because there’s a central performance here that really needs to be seen.
The play is set in Bob’s Manhattan apartment. Bob (Adam Argyle) is a publisher, fancies himself someone who publishes excellent books of high literary quality, which means his business is just this side of profitable. The IRS is auditing him, and his attorney and friend, Oscar (Reese Purser) is sorting through his records, and has invited his ex-wife, Mary (Becca Ingram) to peruse cancelled checks and generally help out. Bob’s current, much-younger fiancee, the enchantingly wierd Tiffany (Taylor Fonbuena) is particularly interested in meeting Mary, a meeting Bob is anxious to prevent. Meanwhile, Bob’s movie-star friend, Dirk (Eric Raemakers) is hoping Bob will publish his Hollywood auto-biography, a book nowhere near high-brow enough for Bob. Bob, of course, still has feelings for Mary, and despite the pain of the divorce, Mary may still harbor similar feelings for Mary. But Dirk isn’t just a movie star, he’s a charming, insightful, likeable guy, and genuinely smitten with Mary. So the play is built around a double love triangle, between Bob, Mary and Tiffany, and Bob, Mary and Dirk. And the major dramatic question is this: will Mary and Bob get back together? Or will she go off with Dirk (a choice that becomes increasingly plausible as the play goes on).
I thought the cast was all very good, except for Becca Ingram as Mary, who I thought was spectacular. And that’s needed. Mary, as written by Kerr, is a tremendous character; exceptionally bright and insightful and funny. It’s a play about Mary; it succeeds or fails depending on the performance by the actress who plays her. She’s the kind of woman who pretty much always sees the absurdity of any situation she finds herself in, and has a gift for the perfect bon mot to describe social absurdity. She’s also terribly, achingly insecure. She has never believed herself to be beautiful, or even attractive, though she’s in fact quite stunning. So her wisecracks are a defense mechanism, too. For the play to work, it requires an actress who can capture both her wit and her vulnerability, as she is equal parts both a funny, funny girl and achingly lonely and hurt and unsure.
Becca Ingram does all that, superbly, but then adds another quality. Her Mary isn’t just that humorist/wounded kitten duality. She adds another layer, a shaky but hard-earned confidence. Mary has been alone for 9 months, and she’s had to work through a tremendous amount of pain and self-doubt. But she has worked through it. She’s professionally secure (though she wouldn’t be Mary if she wasn’t also aware that her job, letters-to-the-editor editor, is at least somewhat ridiculous). She’s had a make-over; learned how to dress to her best advantage. She’s gained a lot, some self-knowledge, some professional assurance, some self-possession. She has, in fact, become a feminist, to the extent that that was a possibility in 1961. And yes, it’s very nice to have a movie star like Dirk interested in her. And gratifying to see her ex-husband realize what a mistake he made when he left her. But she wants something more, something rare in the play’s world of 1961. She wants equality. She wants to align herself with a grown-up.
How big a stretch is it to consider Jean Kerr a feminist? I don’t think it’s a stretch at all. I love her essay collections–The Snake has all the Lines, and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. She was a bit like Erma Bombeck, a very funny chronicler of American suburban women. She had six kids, and was happily married, to drama critic Walter Kerr. She was a best-selling author and a humorist. She wore pants, and said so; hated housework, and said so; drank and smoked too much, slept in the same bed as her husband, and said so. She’d lock herself in her Chevy to write. She and her husband were partners, and equals, and both of them said so.
And she created Mary. And Mary, in this play, is one of the richest, most complex and fascinating fictional American women in that period. The movie version of the play flopped, because Hollywood couldn’t handle a female character as independent as Mary. And Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, warm and wise and human and funny, was reduced to a Doris Day vehicle by Hollywood. But Barta Heiner and Becca Ingram (and costume designer Lisa Kuhne) have reinvented Mary for us, at the Covey Center. It’s really something special. Go see it.