The cast of ‘Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie.’ (Photo: Ben Arons)
The Mad Ones, New York City’s hyper-realistic, devised-work theater ensemble, returns with their latest creation, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, which invites audiences inside a focus group for a 1970s children’s television show. But the real drama unfolds ever so subtly among a diverse collection of parents and its facilitator Dale (Brad Heberlee).
For 90 minutes, we get glimpses into parenting skills and cultural identities, all revealed through a methodical series of research questions. The six participants represent a timely cross-section of America: June, a wife of a successful doctor (Carmen M. Herlihy); Wayne, who works in the manufacturing industry (Michael Dalto); bookstore owner Ernest (Phillip James Brannon); single mom Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson); sophisticated and well-spoken Celeste — who prefers to go by Cici (January LaVoy); and salesman Roger (Joe Curnutte). Jim (Marc Bovino), a research and data associate, rounds out the ensemble, tucked in the back furiously taking notes and jotting down brainstorming sessions on a chalkboard. Mundane? Not in the least.
For those not familiar with The Mad Ones’ work, their meticulous attention to detail is nothing short of mesmerizing. No, you won’t see bigger-than-life performances such as the Tony Award-nominated Nathan Lane in Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus or Glenda Jackson’s bellowing patriarch in King Lear. But if you watch (and listen) closely in the intimate Greenwich House theatre, you’ll witness a 21st-century reimagining of Stanislavski’s groundbreaking shift toward naturalism.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie doesn’t have quite the same dramatic arc as the company’s previous work, Miles for Mary, which charted a disparate group of educators planning an annual fundraising event. Conceptually similar, that work delivered bigger swings and hits, while Menagerie’s pace and tone are more restrained.
Even so, you’ll witness temperaments simmer as the participants disagree about fictional disciplinary action as they review pilots for potential spin-offs: Candace’s Cabinet and Teddy’s Treehouse. While there is no singular way to rear a child, each parent eventually taps into his or her ideologies. “I’d like her to know that it’s not just magic that something gets fixed and gets brought back to you, and then you get cake,” Cici says of the fictional Candace after she’s broken a cello. “But that everything has a process.”
The Mad Ones’ process — a minutely detailed creative approach to character development — delivers fascinating results. One can only wonder what kind of menagerie they’ll create next.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie
Ars Nova at Greenwich House
27 Barrow Street
Through May 11
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.