Miles for Mary has been written and created by The Mad Ones’ company members Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Stephanie Wright Thompson who appear in the play, and Lila Neugebauer who directed the play, in collaboration with company dramaturg Sarah Lunnie, and the creative ensemble of Amy Staats & Stacey Yen who also appear. If Neugebauer’s name sounds familiar, she has been responsible for the Signature Theater Company hits The Antipodes, Everybody, the triple bill made up of The Sandbox, Drowning, and Funnyhouse of a Negro, and The Wayside Motor Inn, as well as Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves which has had three engagements in NYC in the last year. The success of Miles for Mary says a good deal about the effectiveness of ensemble-generated plays when the members are as talented as these.
When Miles for Mary begins, we are in the shared office/lounge of the Garrison High School Phys Ed Department. Amy Rubin’s exquisitely detailed set may take you back to your high school days: stationary bicycle, basketball hoop, sports trophies, a locker, a coffee maker, eye chart, PA intercom, sports equipment, inspirational signs, with a window allowing us to see the colorful tiled hall just outside. Running from August 1988 through the winter of 1989, Miles for Mary has reminders that this is the era of cassettes, camcorders, overhead projectors, and green-screen monitors. Each of the six scenes is a complete meeting in real time of the school committee to plan the Ninth Annual, 24 hour “Miles for Mary” telethon, a sports scholarship fund honoring a student athlete who died in a car crash, at which one topic is discussed ad infinitum: budget, theme, programming, holiday round-up, phone training and post mortem.
The tone is set from the outset. Brenda Zadakian, a guidance counselor and the nominal chair of the committee, is home on extended leave after an unnamed accident and is being kept up to date on a speaker phone. However, she can’t hear them at the other end and this creates a certain amount of hilarity and unnecessary confusion. The members present at the meeting are David Eagan, the acting chair, wrestling coach and history teacher; Rod Dietrich, assistant wrestling coach, and health and phys ed teacher, Sandra Bulkman, track and field coach and math teacher; Ken Wyckoff, head of the AV Club and economics teacher, and his wife Julie Wyckoff-Barnes, an Advanced Placement English teacher, new to the committee. All are politically correct, defer to the others, and treat each other the way they treat their students. “Do More” becomes their mantra but less seems to be getting accomplished at each meeting.
As anyone knows who has sat on such a committee, we give ourselves away very quickly in our dealings with the other members. So do the characters here reveal their true colors: Dalto as David, chair and peacemaker who never actually offers any solutions, Wright-Thompson as Sandra, gung ho for doing more but speaking entirely in platitudes, Curnutte as Rod, who can’t sit still and is always finding ways to get up from his chair at the conference table, Bovino as Ken, the neurotic, high-strung math teacher whose marriage to Julie may be going through a bad patch, and Yen as Julie, the newest member of the team who has the best ideas and does the most work. Staats as Brenda (who we finally met in the last scene when she returns to school) who as a guidance counselor knows how to be conciliatory to the last drop. All seem to be living their roles rather than acting them, which is not so surprising when you recall that they all had input in the writing of the play.
Neugebauer’s direction is assured and pitch-perfect. Along with Rubin’s remarkable set, the costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter (a Mad Ones company member) are also right on and define the characters as they see themselves. Wrestling coaches Dave and Rod are always in assorted tee-shirts, while track and field coach Sandra always wears the same blue tracksuit (which we assume she has at least half a dozen.) Ken and Julie, entirely classroom teachers, dress more formally in each of their appearances. Mike Inwood’s overly bright lighting from the fluorescent tubes on the ceiling will make you recall your days in the classroom. Stowe Nelson’s sound design includes the problem with the intercom and the PA message that ultimately causes great trouble.
The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary is the latest in workplace plays which have almost become a sub-genre. Hilarious due to its shock of recognition, and ultra-realistic in presentation, it also says a great deal about passive-aggressive interactions in group dynamics. The acting in which each character becomes a distinctly different person from the others is of a very high quality. The production values could not be bettered. Miles for Mary is an unusually wry entertainment and not to be missed. This is a bravura Manhattan debut for The Mad Ones.
Miles for Mary (extended through February 25, 2018)
Playwrights Horizons & The Mad Ones
Playwrights Horizons’ Redux Series
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.phnyc.org
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes with no intermission