People who don’t fit into conventional boxes make everyone else uncomfortable, which often leads to them being misread, stifled, abandoned or over-medicated into oblivion. All that appears to have been the fate of the title character in “Crazy Mary,” A.R. Gurney’s thematically vague tragicomedy about a wealthy bipolar woman tucked away in a Boston sanatorium for more than 30 years. The play continues the prolific Gurney’s satirical reflection on the obsolescence of WASP culture, but its amusing observations are undercut by characters whose behavior and mechanical transformations too often ring false.
An entire species of privileged New Englander seems to be fading away in John Lee Beatty’s finely detailed set, depicting the sitting room of a once stately mansion now somewhat musty with age and serving as a private psychiatric institution for rich folks.
Stepping into that environment like a human reflection of its frayed affluence is Lydia (Sigourney Weaver), a handsome, crisply controlling woman forced by an ungenerous divorce to make ends meet as a real estate broker in Buffalo, a city that stands as another emblem of economic decline. Following the death of her father, Lydia has become next of kin and trustee to her still-wealthy second cousin Mary (Kristine Nielsen), a resident patient since 1973.
In an opening scene that ambles on for far too long, Gurney sets up the story of a grasping woman looking to remedy her financial condition and recapture her more comfortable past by milking an unfortunate relative. But as the play continues, it becomes clear this is a less crude character study about people wedged by society and circumstance into constraining roles.
Unexpectedly, though, despite the highly watchable actresses playing those roles, it’s not the loopy woman on the emotional rollercoaster or the pushy patrician bitch that are the most intriguing characters — or the most persuasive performances. That would be Skip (Michael Esper), Lydia’s smart, humorously sullen son. While his mother is delighted he has a driving Jewish girlfriend and has earmarked him as a vehicle for further family salvation, envisioning him as a player in the business world after he graduates from Harvard, Skip clings defensively to his aimlessness.
He’s mortified by his abrasive mother’s insensitivity and resistant to her ambitions for him, drawn instead to the idea of being a farmer. In one of the now characteristic digs at the current president that Gurney inserts, not always smoothly, into his plays, Skip says of Bush, “I identify with the guy. He’s a kid from Andover in the wrong slot at the wrong time, so he’s messing up, just like me.”
Dragged downstairs by doting psych nurse Pearl (Myra Lucretia Taylor) to meet her relatives under Lydia’s insistence, Mary sits staring in a blankly catatonic state as Lydia babbles about ponies, croquet and swimming during their summers in Cooperstown as children (“On TV, they call it the Back Story,” deadpans Skip). But the patient’s darting glances at Skip reveal an instant connection. Without Lydia’s knowledge, Skip begins visiting Mary, who transforms instantly into a gushing romantic, fluttering around her “beau” like a deranged Amanda Wingfield as she’s transported back to the past and a scandalous affair with a young stable boy.
Gurney begins slipping off the reality rails here in a number of ways. Chief shrink Jerome (Mitchell Greenberg) may be the world’s most unprofessional psychiatric practitioner, encouraging his patient’s delusional, over-excited state without a thought to where it might lead, focused only on the book it might yield. Costumer Claudia Brown also doesn’t help, grotesquely outfitting middle-aged Mary like Baby Jane Hudson in a shocking pink party dress and girlish hairdo. Those choices create a challenge for Nielsen in a performance that locates the comic quirks more readily than the pathos.
Even allowing for the wild mood swings of mental illness, Mary’s metamorphosis from mute detachment to giddy hysteria to seeming stability is never made entirely plausible and the play seems repeatedly to teeter on the brink of farce. Also not quite credible is Lydia’s turnaround from self-serving meddler, suddenly becoming a caring, reluctantly benevolent person.
Resorting to too many stiff mannerisms at first, Weaver has a difficult character to play and despite Lydia’s basically unsympathetic nature, the script establishes no real reason for her to feel the guilt and responsibility that she does in the final scene. But Weaver’s performance deepens in texture as Lydia begins ruefully to acknowledge her limitations and the unflattering stereotype she represents.
Despite those moments, however, and Nielsen’s touching glimpses of a fragile, damaged soul “recalled to life” (the play lifts the phrase from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”), Skip is the most compelling figure onstage and his emotional transitions the most deeply felt. Latching onto Mary as a “kindred spirit,” the floundering character appears visibly to have the weight lifted from his shoulders by the unlikely — and occasionally creepy — relationship with a precariously balanced woman more than twice his age.
While Jim Simpson’s unimaginative direction can’t compensate for the play’s rather pedestrian construction and the questionable developments of its extremely unsatisfying ending, Esper’s struggling, hurting, guarded but always hopeful character remains the one real person onstage.