“Miles for Mary” is the Mad Ones theater troupe’s spot-on, deadpan funny look at a year’s worth of planning committee meetings for a local telethon at an Ohio high school. Originally presented last fall Off-Off Broadway at the Bushwick Starr, where it was well-received, it is the first production in what Playwrights Horizons is calling its Redux Series, an effort to bring shows at smaller theaters to Off-Broadway for a longer run. As such, it seems like a test case. Will the Playwrights Horizons audience take to a show that requires so much patience and at least a little insolence?
The play, written by its ensemble, is a collaboration about the nature of collaboration. It’s clear that the Mad Ones collaborate better than the half dozen members of the planning committee for the ninth annual Miles for Mary telethon of Garrison High School in Garrison, Ohio.
In five ineffectual and interminable meetings conducted in the office and teachers lounge of the Phys Ed department over the course of the 1988-1989 school year, we see the teachers and coaches put together the event — determining the budget, coming up with a theme, using post-it notes to schedule the various acts, worrying over unexpected glitches, training to use the new phone system.
They approach each task with an attempt at formality – when one of the members suggests that this year “we should do more,” another says: “The committee would like to recognize there’s a vote on the floor to do more. All in favor?” They also expend much effort trying to respect one another’s feelings, as if each has read their teachers’ manuals very carefully, and every best-selling self-help book of the era; they periodically call for a “real time check-in.”
But it’s to no avail. The subterranean tensions among the characters finally explode to the surface, when Ken the economics teacher (Marc Bovino) feels he’s being ignored and patronized while trying to teach the new hands-free telephone system. It is during his (hilarious) tirade that there is a barely articulated but poignant suggestion that he and his wife Julie (Stacey Yen), an AP English teacher who is also on the committee, are having problems.
Set designer Amy Rubin has done a masterful job in re-creating the surface details of the time and place – the overhead projector, the faulty speaker phone, the “Be Positive Don’t Panic” poster on the wall. The ensemble, by both their writing and their performances, subtly reveal what’s beneath the surface. Little of it is spelled out, and even some of the basic information unfolds slowly;we learn late in the play that the Miles for Mary telethon is named after a track star from the high school with a brilliant future who was killed in a car crash.
But “Miles for Mary” might ignite memories (fond or otherwise) among theatergoers who have ever worked for volunteer organizations. It could even provoke recollections of their high school years, and the realization that their teachers and coaches must have been human beings.
Miles for Mary
written by Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Lila Neugebauer and Stephanie Wright Thompson; in collaboration with Sarah Lunnie and the creative ensemble of Amy Staats and Stacey Yen
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Scenic Design: Amy Rubin
Costume Design: Ásta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting Design: Mike Inwood
Sound Design: Stowe Nelson
Cast: Marc Bovino as Ken, Joe Curnutte as Rod, Michael Dalto as David, Amy Staats as Brenda, Stephanie Wright Thompson as Sandra, and Stacey Yen as Julie.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $20 to $75
Miles for Mary is scheduled to run through February