‘Miles for Mary’ (Photo courtesy of The Mad Ones.)
By Matthew Wexler
If you haven’t yet heard of The Mad Ones, the New York City-based ensemble theater company that’s been making slow and steady waves in small venues across the city for nearly a decade, scramble to Playwrights Horizons, where their latest offering, Miles for Mary, is playing through February 4. The production, which premiered in October 2016 at The Bushwick Starr, is receiving a much-deserved second viewing thanks to PH’s Redux Series — an effort to expose new audiences to emerging works from Off-Off Broadway companies.
Developed through a “unique methodology,” which I imagine includes a lot of improvisation and character development, the ensemble finds itself in the fictional town of Garrison, Ohio. Plopped in the middle of a high school office/lounge, a small committee of teachers prepares for the ninth annual Miles for Mary fundraising event.
The year is 1988 and the linoleum, stationary bike and other details by scenic designer Amy Rubin set the scene well (except for a food pyramid wall chart, which anachronistically reflects USDA nutrition guidelines that didn’t change until 1992). Costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter, too, sharply harkens back to ill-fitting tracksuits, synthetic fabrics, and other touches from one of our country’s less stylish periods.
But all of this is icing on the cake for the ensemble of six actors, who drill through months of meetings to plan a 24-hour telethon to raise scholarship funds in memory of former student Mary, who we assume met her untimely death and is the inspiration for the event. Fans of Christopher Guest, Larry David, and ensemble-driven films and television shows such as Waiting for Guffman and Curb Your Enthusiasm, will see similar fodder in The Mad Ones’ work, which by no means diminishes its brilliance. Eight individuals are given writing credits for Miles for Mary. The fact that they could agree to get anything on the page, let alone the stage, is a miracle in itself.
The play begins (and continues in a series of sequential meetings) with the gathering of the committee: Sandra (Stephanie Wright Thompson), peace-making track and field coach; David (Michael Dalto), wrestling coach and committee chair; Rod (Joe Curnutte), assistant coach and Alpha male; Ken (Marc Bovino), economics teacher and AV specialist; Julie (Stacey Yen), Ken’s wife, English teacher and new committee member; and Brenda (Amy Staats), guidance counselor who we only hear by speaker phone until the play’s last scene.
The committee navigates its interpersonal relationships to varying degrees of success in an attempt to pull off the event, discussing everything from detailed goal setting (“Do More”) to the integration of new telethon phones, which dissolves into accusations of patronization and other social faux pas. And while these passages extract plenty of well-earned audience laughs, it is each sharply crafted characterization that elevates The Mad Ones from an extended comedy sketch into a great piece of theater.
At the end of the day, or in this case, months, we all just want our voices to be heard. How we approach this is one of the play’s overarching themes. As educators, the committee members try to implement their teaching techniques on one another. Every voice should be heard. Everyone’s opinion needs to be respected. Nobody should question the validity of a suggestion. But as we all know, that’s bullshit. We’re human. We get pissed off. And anger as a healthy emotion is rarely explored in our culture.
Miles for Mary will hit a nerve for anyone who’s butted up against a difference of opinion. Its nostalgic 1980s throwback provides a quirky backdrop, but its themes of human validation and sensitivity are timeless.
Miles for Mary
The Mad Ones at Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre
416 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through February 25
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.