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By MARK PEIKERT
In 2004, director Scott Elliott and The New Group revived playwright Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon to critical hosannas and two Obie Awards. That production led to another New Group revival of a Shawn play (The Fever) and Shawn's new translation of The Threepenny Opera, which Elliott directed on Broadway in 2006. Now the duo is reuniting at The New Group, with a new production of Shawn’s 1978 play Marie and Bruce, starring Frank Whaley and Marisa Tomei.
An absurdist portrait of a marriage written in acid, Marie and Bruce follows the titular couple over the course of the day Marie decides to leave Bruce, encompassing everything from their morning together to a dinner party to dessert at a restaurant. "Marisa and I were talking about wanting to do something together and we both love Marie and Bruce," Elliott recalls. "And [at the time] they were making a movie of [the play], so I thought, 'We better wait to see what the movie does.'"
The film adaptation, written by Shawn and shot in 2003, went straight to DVD in 2009. Tomei hadn’t given up on the idea of doing the play, so she brought it up while Elliott was planning the current New Group season. After mounting reading of the script, both Shawn and Elliott were eager to do a full production—with some slight revisions.
"I’ve rather dramatically rewritten the piece," Shawn says. "Those who know it by heart will be shocked. The largest difference is that Marie and Bruce go to a party, and in the original version, it’s a cocktail party with 100 people. Scott said, ‘Why don’t we make it a dinner party?’ And I was shocked at first. I said, 'I don’t know if I can do that. But let me think about it.'"
Some playwrights might balk at being asked to revise their plays, but in speaking to Elliott and Shawn, it’s clear that both men have a great deal of respect for one another.
"Wally is sort of one of those prescient writers," Elliott says. "His work seems to be maturing into itself. With distance, things become clearer. In spite of the brutality described and depicted in some of his plays, there is an incredible understanding of humanity. And there’s an incredible compassion for his characters."
Shawn explains their rapport by saying, "He’s secretly drawn to the avant-garde. And I’m secretly drawn to kitchen-sink naturalism. And we both are fascinated by psychological truth. Or trying to find psychological truth. What I suppose I enormously enjoy, and what I think Scott enormously enjoys, is taking odd moments in the text that don’t at first seem realistic, and acting them in a realistic way and making them believable."
Marie and Bruce’s stylized language and obscenity-laced dialogue offer plenty of opportunities for sudden shifts into painful realism. According to Elliott, these flourishes help make the play a "very, very dangerous microscope that reveals all the flaws and pimples. It’s definitely not the kind of show you come to to be entertained. You have to participate. That’s what I love about Wally’s writing. You can’t just sit back and be entertained, you must think, you must formulate an opinion."
Mark Peikert is the theater critic for New York Press.