Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Reality and Beyond - The Aliens and Mary Jane - Play Reviews

The Aliens - Coal Mine Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Annie Baker, Directed by Mitchell Cushman
Runs until Oct. 8th 2017

Mary Jane - New York Theatre Workshop - New York City, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Amy Herzog, Directed by Anne Kauffman
Runs until Oct. 29th 2017

Watching these plays, The Aliens, an older Annie Baker play now brought to life by Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto, and Amy Herzog's newest play Mary Jane at NYTW, I sat there immersed in these stories and thought, these are not so much plot plays but about people thrown into bad situations and trying to deal with life, and damn is it heartbreaking. It's not obvious at first, but both Herzog and Baker's plays slowly reveal themselves by revealing the humanity in their characters as they deal with life's blows, but also reveal their strength, or "goodness" as we slowly figure out what Mary Jane's life is all about, or how two bro-ish straight "losers" hanging out in a backlot alley reserved for employees only find each other and lend whatever strengths they have to a newbie looking for connection.

Much of what is revealed in The Aliens is unspoken, in the awkward pauses or the silent moments that somehow bond KJ (Will Greenblatt) and Jasper (Noah Reid), two guys who found each other after life sort of failed them. They hang around the employees only backlot alley of someone else's workplace, where they deal with Jasper's latest relationship failure. When a new employee, an awkward 17-year-old Evan Shelmerdine (Maxwell Haynes), discovers the pair behind his new workplace, the older guys take a shine to the newbie and slowly develop a rapport with Evan as Evan answers back in awkward uneasy "cool" while trying to connect. Annie Baker nails the straight guys speak to awkward silence precision and it's in the slow reveals where the 2 older school-drop-outs show their artistic desires, as well as their band (last called The Aliens), who sort of school Evan in whatever advice they can give. It's a beautiful slow burn, and while parts tend to ramble on (much like in real life), it's a fascinating precursor to Baker's Pulitzer-winner The Flick and her latest play john.

Mitchell Cushman's production is beautifully set in the transformed Coal Mine Theatre space with a set by Anahita Debonehie and lights by Nick Blais that places the audience into the back alley (with a clever window detail for the stage manager). Sam Shouldice's sound design adds to the realism that lets Cushman bring Baker's ultra-realism theatre as we spend times with these guys we would normally overlook.

Will Greenblatt is particularly fun as KJ, the college-drop out with a drinking problem. Greenblatt's KJ exudes a cheeky bravado that masks his hidden disappointments and plays nicely against Maxwell Haynes shy awkwardness. Haynes, in a breakthrough debut, manages to convey so much of Evan's hopes and emotions in the very little actual dialogue he has, and his responses to KJ and Jasper help us learn to connect with the two "The Aliens". Noah Reid's Jasper is the "smarter" of the pair, but he seems less enthused by Evan while still showing he secretly cares underneath his cool loner exterior. Reid, who is naturally a warm likeable actor, tries hard to be the slightly hardened artistic type, and while at times his readings start to ramble (of Jasper's writings), it's obvious his Jasper wants to care about his friends, old and new.

There's a lot of talk about nothing (or what seems like nothing at first) but Baker's clever reveals slowly showcase the deep connections these guys have with each other, and their new found friends. They're ultimately depending on one another despite exuding loner independence as they try to exist and understand the reality they were given.

In Mary Jane, we slowly discover the daily life Mary Jane lives through right now, trying to take care of her highly sick son while surviving the reality of life and the health care system on a low income job that she's been rarely attending. In another hyper real setting with the awkward moments of silences and pauses as those around her try to help and understand but ultimately, Mary Jane's sad story is a good person in a terrible situation, and the play just displays that reality as the plot itself.

We see Mary Jane (Carrie Coon) in her apartment survive daily life with help from her super (Brenda Wehle), one of the various nurses (Liza Colón-Zayas) and the nurse's niece (Danaya Esperanza), and as she guides a fellow mother with a child with a similar case (Susan Pourfar). It should all be a big downer with little happiness or hope left in the story but Herzog imbues Jane's story with an internal sense of humour, as Jane's optimism, despite the lack of good news, buoys our own view of Mary Jane, both the person and the play.

The ensemble cast is unifyingly excellent and take on double roles that seem specifically geared to match their first roles. Colón-Zayas is a gentle angel as the home-nurse, but then seems particularly pointed and careful as a doctor on the case. Pourfar meanwhile breaks hearts twice as a mother of a newly diagnosed child, and then a Jewish mother of a child who seems to know the drill too well, and yet also does not. Esperanza is the plucky but heartfelt niece, and then returns as a genteel music therapist. Wehle is the snappy but understanding superintendent and then later doubles as a priest.

At the heart of it, Coon is refreshing as a no-nonsens Mary Jane who keeps advocating for her child without losing her optimism, but in doing so, slowly questions her place in the world, and how it all fits in.

Herzog's Mary Jane presents some very realistic moments in the title characters life, and through her interactions with others, we see the hidden heartbreak she tries to bury with an optimism that only enhances the emotional pull. While the realism is upended with a dramatic change to the story, it continues along moving from dealing with reality to questioning the beyond.

Photos of The Aliens by Tim Leyes
Photos of Mary Jane by Joan Marcus
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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