For its first production in its new second home downtown in a spruced-up Greenwich House Theater, Ars Nova is presenting the latest devised piece by the much-praised ten-year-old company The Mad Ones.
In “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie,” the creators of a 1970s children’s television program have hired a company to conduct a focus group made up of parents of young children.
In real time, six characters who have never met before gather around a conference table for 90 minutes to answer questions about the series and the characters in it, many of whom are puppets.
Ars Nova designates The Mad Ones as its Company-in-Residence, and has been associated with them since the company began, helping to develop The Mad Ones’ previous theater piece, “Miles for Mary,” which was presented to great acclaim last year at Ars Nova’s midtown theater. The playbill for “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie” calls it “the culmination of a 10-year relationship between Ars Nova and The Mad Ones.” Let’s hope that’s not so.
There are some superficial similarities between “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie” and “Miles for Mary.” Like the earlier show, “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie” is a low-key work created by the entire ensemble, who give completely credible performances. (Four of the cast members are the same in both pieces). The earlier show presents a series of planning committee meetings for a local telethon at an Ohio high school. But it revolves around teachers and other school staff who know each other from the start, and in effect chronicles the intricate and engaging (and often hilarious) relationships that unfold over a year’s worth of meetings.
Both shows are like the theatrical equivalent of pointillist paintings — impressive in the precision of their details and the verisimilitude of the larger picture. But the larger picture in “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie” is of a group of people sitting around a cheap table in front of a blackboard talking about an imaginary television series.
Sometimes, it’s true, the conversation is diverting.
When the focus group leader Dale (Brad Heberlee) asks the parents for a word or a phrase to explain how Mrs. Murray is most unlike you, Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson) replies “I don’t live with puppets.” When Dale asks for a show of thumbs up, thumbs down or thumbs in the middle, about whether Mrs. Murray takes good care of her house, June (Carmen M. Herlihy) is the only one who doesn’t show her thumb at all. “There are mice,” she explains. The presence of a puppet mouse in the series (which is also called Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie) convinces June that Mrs. Murray is a bad housekeeper. But the mouse is just a character on the show, Ernest (Phillip James Brannon) objects. The mouse doesn’t talk, June replies. Neither does Benny, argues Cici (January LaVoy). “Because Benny’s function on the show is a puppet dog. Just like the mouse is a puppet mouse,” June says. “They don’t possess human qualities like the chicken. We don’t ever see the mouse helping the chicken fix cars.” That’s why she knows Mrs. Murray has “a mouse problem.”
(Just to be clear: The only way we learn about Benny and the mouse and the chicken who fixes cars, is in this dialogue.)
There are not enough such outright humorous passages. Even at its funniest, the show evokes the kind of quiet amusement one might feel if you were stuck in an actual long meeting and trying to keep yourself secretly entertained.
It’s possible that parents with young children might appreciate “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie” more than I did. They may especially like the moments in the play when the parents on stage are comparing their children with the puppet children, and their child-rearing practices with those on the TV show. There is one particularly lively exchange in reaction to the first episode of a spin-off show called Candace’s Cabinet (which the characters were shown before the focus group commences.) We piece together that Candace the bunny broke a cello in that episode; she at first denied it, then cried; her parents comforted her and gave her a piece of carrot cake. That didn’t sit well with Gloria: “They don’t ever, you know, knock her straight and say, ‘What were you thinking?’”
Ernest agrees: “I would like to believe that Momma and Papa Rabbit would actually discipline her. So there’s a consequence for her actions.”
Wayne (Michael Dalto) also agrees. Roger (Joe Curnutte) disagrees: “She’s an emotional wreck.”
There’s another reason why young parents might be a better audience for “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie.” They’ve been forced to learn to be extraordinarily patient.
Click on any photograph by Ben Arons to see it enlarged.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie
Ars Nova at Greenwich House
Created By The Mad Ones And Phillip James Brannon, Brad Heberlee, Carmen M. Herlihy & January Lavoy
Directed By Lila Neugebauer
Scenic Design You-Shin Chen & Laura Jellinek
Costume Design Ásta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting Design Mike Inwood
Sound Design Stowe Nelson
Prop Design Emmie Finckel & Noah Mease
Wig & Makeup Design Fre
Composer Justin Ellington
Dramaturg Sarah Lunnie
Core Artistic Collaborator Raja Feather Kelly
Casting Consultant Lauren Port
Production Stage Manager John C. Moore
Assistant Stage Manager Bryan Bauer
Cast: The Mad Ones members: Marc Bovino as Jim, Joe Curnutte as Roger, Michael Dalto as Wayne and Stephanie Wright Thompson as Gloria who are joined by: Phillip James Brannon as Ernest, Brad Heberlee as Dale, Carmen M. Herlihy as June and January LaVoy as Celeste/Cici,
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $37 to $67
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is scheduled to run through April 27, 2019