Those who loved The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary which had an extended run at Playwrights Horizons last year after its premiere at The Brooklyn Starr in 2016, will be greatly disappointed by their latest group effort called Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie. The beautifully renovated Greenwich House offers the first show of the Ars Nova residency a lovely venue for this new play and the Lila Neugebauer production is impeccably acted and designed. However, this fictional recreation of a focus group, like most cinéma vérité, has no discernable dramatic event, making it a long 90 minutes.
Miles for Mary was a brilliant examination of group dynamics while the planning committee for a high school telethon argued their way through almost a year of meetings and various agenda at which we get to know all of the teachers involved and wait for the explosion that is bound to occur. Told in real time, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie follows one in a series of focus groups being held by Blue Horizon Research and Data Collection Agency at a Philadelphia community center in 1979 into the popularity of the fictional children’s show in the play’s title as well as its two possible spinoffs, Candace’s Cabinet and Teddy’s Treehouse, yet to be broadcast. Each sequence is just more of the same handled in the same manner.
The meeting is run by Dale (Brad Heberlee), a senior consultant, with the help of the nearly silent Jim (Marc Bovino) whose arm is in a sling. There are six parents, three mothers, and three fathers from all walks of life, and all of whose children have been interviewed earlier in the day. The six representative parents are June (Carmen M. Herlihy), who is married to a doctor; Wayne (Michael Dalto), a blue collar worker who never takes off his baseball cap; Celeste, who wants to be called Cici (January LaVoy), a beautifully appointed light-skinned black suburban homemaker; Roger (Joe Curnutte), a salesman who thinks he is a wit; Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson), who works at a car dealership; and Ernest (Phillip James Brannon), a black man who runs a bookstore called Books About You.
We never get to see an episode of any of the three shows as presumably all six parents have, so that it is a little difficult to follow the show’s characters and plot lines. The participants are all polled on their opinions to each any every question which becomes very repetitious. It becomes obvious that often they agree based on race, gender or economic class. A few tiny little arguments occasionally break out but are tamped down so fast by Dale that there is no drama.
It is possible that the parents become their children but as their descriptions are read at the top of the show it is difficult to recall whose child goes with whom as we never meet the kids. Various character traits come to the fore: Gloria like to wait until she hears the opinion of the other five; Roger likes to be argumentative; Ernest thinks things out very carefully; June takes offense easily; and Wayne has little to say.
Periodically the consultant changes direction like when puppets of all of the characters are brought out and all six parents are asked to choose one, but these diversions don’t last long enough to develop new interest in the play. Although this new work from The Mad Ones is completely believable and realistic as slice of life, the question that comes to mind while watching it is “Why?” Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie isn’t funny enough to be a comedy nor dramatic enough to be a drama, and group dynamics are never allowed to take over.
Written by The Mad Ones and actors Brannon, Heberlee, Herlihy and LaVoy who appear in it, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie plays like a group effort without revealing any new depths or truths. The production team has performed a wonderful job. Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes instantly define the characters who remain true to our first impressions. The set by You-Shin Chen & Laura Jellinek is realistic down to the working sink and the coffee machine but nothing much happens with any of it. Mike Inwood’s lighting is realistic down to having the light pour through the side windows to simulate afternoon light. See Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie if you have an interest in sociological experiments or a high tolerance for tedium. Don’t see it because you loved Miles for Mary – Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is an entirely different animal.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie (extended through May 11, 2019)
Ars Nova at Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.arsnovanyc.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission