Though the theatrical collective the Mad Ones named itself after a line from “On the Road” — “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk” — you could be forgiven for thinking what’s mad is their method.
In a series of productions since 2009, its five core members, joined by others for individual projects, have built scripts out of improvisations on situations notable for their banality. Perhaps you caught “Samuel and Alasdair,” their enactment of the lives of two unremarkable Iowa brothers in the 1950s. Or “Miles for Mary,” their meticulous reconstruction of a faculty meeting at an Ohio high school circa 1988.
I loved “Miles for Mary” for the way it revealed the extremeness of the human condition even in its apparently least consequential moments. But I worried whether the Mad Ones had excelled itself into a corner. How could it ever top the transcendent tediousness of an assistant wrestling coach trying to follow Robert’s Rules of Order?
And yet its latest, “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie,” which opened on Monday at the Greenwich House Theater, dips even deeper into the well of ordinariness. Though not quite as emotionally powerful as its predecessor, it is just as funny and, in some ways, more momentous.
The setup certainly fits the Mad Ones profile, pursuing its goal to “examine and illuminate American nostalgia” within a highly structured yet nearly surreal format. At a Philadelphia community center in 1979, six parents of young children have been assembled to participate in a focus group. The tinted aviator glasses, hairstyles and Huk-A-Poo shirts pin down the fashion moment just as forcefully as their chatter pins down the sociological one.
What they’re chattering about couldn’t be more ridiculous, though. A children’s television show called “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie,” starring the beloved Mrs. Murray and puppet pals including Candace, Gypsy, Teddy and Mister Face, is ending its many-year run. A research firm called Blue Horizon has been hired to help the producers decide which of two spinoff options is better: “Candace’s Cabinet” or “Teddy’s Treehouse.”
You may quail at first, as the fantastically smooth Dale from Blue Horizon (Brad Heberlee) asks the panelists searching questions like “In a word or a phrase, how is Mrs. Murray unlike you?” and “By a show of hands, who in this room perceives Gypsy as naughty?”
Yet as Dale’s associate, Jim (Marc Bovino), scrambles to record the answers on a blackboard — despite having one arm in a cast — you begin to notice the way the parents, all strangers, are stratifying along class, gender and racial lines.
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Wayne (Michael Dalto) works in tool and die. Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson) is a single mother who apparently cannot afford the limited edition Mrs. Murray merchandise that June (Carmen M. Herlihy) buys for her son. Ernest (Phillip James Brannon) and Cici (January LaVoy) appreciate the presence of nonwhite characters on the show; they are black. And Roger (Joe Curnutte) becomes strangely defensive when the others agree that Candace, his daughters’ favorite, is “whiny.”
How such minutiae mount into a crisis is a mystery built into the company’s method. Some of it has to do with the subtle, super-sharp direction by Mad Ones member Lila Neugebauer. After the handsy Roger touches Cici and calls her “honey,” you notice how Dale, sensing her discomfort, steps silently between them. And as the choice between “Candace’s Cabinet” and “Teddy’s Treehouse” accelerates into a referendum on privilege and diversity — Candace being white and Teddy being black — you notice how the comedy has become a lot more cutting.
I say “you notice” because nothing is handed to you or signposted. The process of exposition is rigorous and ingenious, forcing you to become an active agent in the discovery of the play’s themes. It’s not even clear that the characters are aware of those themes, any more than people can make out the contours of the history they are part of.
And yet the whole project depends on an understanding of how people expose — cannot help exposing — their truest selves in every gesture and utterance they make. Based on that, the Mad Ones contend that even a focus group about fictional characters can tell us a great deal about real ones, about us.
This puts unusual pressure on the actors, who must be convincing as subjects in a verbatim faux-documentary while also suggesting a bigger picture to which they are mostly blind. First among equals at this are Ms. LaVoy and Mr. Brannon, who seem to carry the incipient knowledge of social change in their exquisitely modulated parries and retreats. And also Mr. Curnutte as a man whose hereditary presumptions of power are being undermined by puppets.
Supporting them beautifully in this Ars Nova production are those time-capsule costumes (by Ásta Bennie Hostetter) and the grungy, you’ve-been-there community room set (by You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek). Even the theme songs for the two spinoffs (music by Justin Ellington, words by Mr. Dalto) are perfect; they sound just like real nostalgia.
That’s quite a trick, but pulling it off is central to the Mad Ones aesthetic. Plays like “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie” dramatize the idea that history isn’t just what gets recorded in books. It’s what’s happening every moment, perhaps especially the trivial ones.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie
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