Audience members that get to Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre early enough to see Samantha Hurley’s “I’m Gonna Marry You Tobey Maguire” find themselves in an immersive experience quite unlike anything else off-Broadway (or on). You enter up a flight of stairs, but once you reach the top, you are directed down another staircase to the “basement.” Every available inch of wall space is taken over by life-size posters and cutouts from Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, and catering to the more mature audience members, People, Cosmopolitan and Entertainment Weekly, all with dreamy shots of Tobey Maguire. While Maguire may not usually be considered a heartthrob, this play is set between the release of Spider-Man and immediately before the making of its first sequel Spider-Man 2. The media was flush with “all things-Tobey Maguire,” an actor whose early work is negligible until 1997’s The Ice Storm, followed by leads in Pleasantville, The Cider House Rules, and Wonder Boys. All of that changed when he was cast as Spider-Man… he was now a star, and with that, was an easy mark for an intense, yet awkward 14-year-old girl with way too much time on her hands.
Shelby Hinkley is that 14-year-old girl. A kidnapped Tobey Maguire handcuffed to a stripper’s pole in her basement is what keeps her from being like every other girl her age. She just happens to be the founder, president and activities director of the North American/Antarctic branch of the Tobey Maguire Fan Club. She provides regular content for her 299 members from a tripod camera in her bedroom, which just happens to be in that same basement where Maguire is held captive. As she puts it to Maguire, “It was a divine sign of fate that my big eighth grade band field trip to play at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in California was the same weekend that you had your wisdom teeth surgery…Thank God our school didn’t cut the arts program.” She whisked him away through an air vent in his oral surgeon’s office and out the door into an oversized duffel bag. A fellow student unknowingly helps her with the “luggage” getting on and off the bus.
While Shelby tells him to “process” what he thinks is only an elaborate scheme on the part of the studio to get him to sign on for the sequel, she throws rose petals into the audience dressed in what can only be an ill-fitting mail-order bridal gown. Her wedding music is on a carefully selected mix tape. She probably didn’t fully think through that her prisoner would be “marrying” her in the t-shirt and sweats he wore to the oral surgeon.
Frequent booming interruptions come from Shelby’s disinterested (unseen) mom from upstairs. Maguire’s calls for help are answered with mom’s requests to turn down the TV. Shelby points out, “See? She doesn’t care. Last year my pigtail got caught in the vent and she didn’t notice I was missing for like three days.” We know he will eventually escape as he went on to do two sequels, but there’s a fair amount of chilling action going on that a suspension of disbelief is warranted. Shelby’s planning and forethought is efficient and coldly detached.
Tessa Albertson as Shelby is borderline-insane, but an insanity that we care about from the get-go. The product of a mom addicted to QVC who will probably die with her hand clutching her TV remote and a dad who is “dead/not dead” serving time for stalking Charlize Theron, has clearly not fallen very far from the tree, as they say. Her Shelby has no boundaries because she has never learned any. Without any true exposure to arts and culture, and not fitting in with the other kids at school, she is fixated on media. Albertson finds moments of joy in being able to blurt out the most intimate details in Maguire’s life – media bites that she has committed to memory as if they are Gospel. Her closing speech where she tells her fan club she is shutting it down, while it is a fitting end when you consider she found out things about Maguire she really didn’t like, is very touching. It is a portent of a Shelby that will have to reinvent herself somehow.
Scott Thomas as Tobey Maguire is a classic heel, but one we find we can also care about. He plays that celebrity that we have no qualms pushing off the pedestal we so adoringly placed him on. While in 2004, there was no such thing as “cancel culture,” the Maguire that Samantha Hurley has presented us with would now be a “poster child” for that concept. It is hard not to like this Maguire though. Thomas triumphs as a young man that has been through ups and downs but never feels comfortable peeling away the façade even when he is at the top of his game. He hides behind the more-than-occasional high. Even trapped in the basement he seeks comfort in spray-paint fumes. The bittersweet final scene where Maguire keeps Shelby from swallowing paint to kill herself is a testament to how well Thomas manages these emotions that turn on a dime. Not wanting to be left alone, Shelby asks, “Are you gonna leave now?” to which he responds, “Yeah, I never wanna see you again.” It is a chilling response when one considers if it weren’t for a lifeguard finding him while on a sleeping pills-and-gin spree the year before, they wouldn’t be having this conversation at that moment.
Janae Robinson as Brenda Dee Cankles, a real estate agent who barges in as if she owns the place, is over-the-top hysterical. Robinson also is the voice of Shelby’s mom from upstairs. We never see her in this role, but we don’t need to as we already have an image of a trailer park version of a Stepford wife with a QVC and HSN addiction. She fares less well as an embodiment of a life-size Tobey Maguire poster that comes to life, but if truth be told, the staging for those pronouncements does her no favors. Those moments reek of the balcony of the Casa Rosada scene in Evita.
Tyler Struble’s direction is right on the money for Hurley’s play. The cell theatre is a railroad apartment where the furthest upstage area is Shelby’s bedroom and the furthest downstage is the stripper’s pole. The audience is seated along the walls so everything is played right there in front of us. Thomas holds court from the pole, with the brief exceptions of when he is in his full Spider-Man drag trying to get a volunteer from the audience to help him out of the sweaty costume, and then later when he exits mounting the stairs. Albertson has the full run of the room giving her at all moments the attention due a runway model. Struble uses every inch of the space without making the audience feel claustrophobic, and is conscious of how to finesse the quieter intimate moments such as when Maguire is combing out Shelby’s hair to apply the butterfly clips.
Rodrigo Hernandez’s scenic and costume design are stars in their own right. Shelby’s bedroom is a cluttered mess of Barbies, Beanie Babies and stuffed animals with the Tobey Maguire cutouts extending from the bedroom walls into every inch of playing space. You never need to ask who the play is about. Tobey is everywhere. The other side of the basement is bare enough to make room for the display of lights to mark Shelby’s special event. Shelving with the remnants of Shelby’s dad’s belongings define the wall directly opposite Shelby’s bedroom. The Spider-Man costume is perfect right down to Spider-Man briefs. Shelby’s pajama pants/sweat pants late in the play are covered in appliques of Tobey Maguire heads. Maguire’s t-shirt, sweatpants and athletic socks could not possibly look grungier. Shelby’s dress over jeans for the school dance look more like a page out of Woodstock than anything current to 2004, but that’s really part of Shelby’s charm. The outfit for Brenda Lee Cankles is clearly trailer park meets Vogue, and it seems so right. Matt Lazarus’s lighting design is sensitive to how aside from lamps, the basement is at the mercy of any light seeping in from basement windows. Nina Field’s sound design succeeds at creating what goes through Shelby’s mind when her own creativity fails her.
Playwright Samantha Hurley does beautiful justice to the life and times (and the inner workings of the mind) of this early teen with not a lot going on but for her own fantasy world and self-importance in the face of neglect, emptiness and lack of love. Shelby kidnaps Tobey Maguire because she has figured out how to get it done. Trapped inside her house with the object of her affection, she realizes “Be careful what you wish for” only too well. We watch her growing pains as we see the actor she traps come to terms with his own failure to make success bring him happiness. In the end, they leave us with our own hearts full.
I’m Gonna Marry You Tobey Maguire (through July 29, 2023)
Watermark Productions and Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre
Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre, 338 West 23rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit thecelltheatre.org
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission