A.R. Gurney has written about 50 plays; at least 31 of them involve Buffalo. When this dramatist makes that Great Lakes city a setting for nostalgia, as in last season’s Indian Blood, the result can be very affecting. When the city stands too squarely for decline, I tend to lose patience: it’s hard to feel misty-eyed for a place that, whatever its misfortunes, still has something Los Angeles lacks: a professional NFL football team.
Crazy Mary, a Playwrights Horizons production directed by Jim Simpson, takes place in Boston, but its central family comes from Buffalo. The middle-aged Lydia has arrived at a private psychiatric facility in Boston’s North Shore to visit her distant cousin Mary, who has been sequestered there for three decades but who has inherited the family fortune, administered by Lydia.
These members of Gurney’s white-Protestant aristocracy may be in decline, but the younger generation, represented by Mary’s son, Skip, still attend Harvard. Skip awakens renewed energy in the middle-aged Mary, played by Kristine Nielsen with trademark offbeat humour; she moves from being the mute madwoman in the attic to a zesty Zelda Fitzgerald.
“I don’t like what I’m wearing,” Mary says at one point, “it seems so old-fashioned.” Gurney is sufficiently aware of his reputation as the chronicler of the twee, cocktail-loving class to realise the self-deprecation in such a comment. He is also sufficiently in control of his craft to grasp that making Lydia mildly anti-Semitic is neither offensive nor funny. Her remarks to the Jewish doctor who supervises Mary’s case (and, in a device that doesn’t pay off, is writing a book about the family) serve to expose her obtuseness.
Lydia’s lack of humour and the doctor’s willingness to allow Mary to move so quickly into the real world are equally unconvincing. Yet, as played with puzzled grace by Sigourney Weaver, Lydia’s plight evinces sympathy, even as her being forced to bear the burden for the story’s chaos seems less like believable Wasp guilt than faulty character development.
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