Bold would unquestionably be an accurate description of Thomas Bradshaw’s satirical “Mary,” which takes us to a Maryland plantation home in the 1980s where the servants still live like slaves and consider, as an act of moral kindness, shooting the young master’s college boyfriend in the cojones. OK, maybe bold is an understatement. Perhaps brazen would be more appropriate, and purposefully needling. It’s a prickly prod of a play, so much so that even when Bradshaw seems to have found a most clever path to a comically happy equilibrium, he insists on re-charging its provocations for a final discomfiting poke.
The set-up would seem to be a twist on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” with David (Alex Weisman) inviting his boyfriend Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) to his Maryland home for the holidays. How will David’s most proper parents, James (Scott Jaeck) and Dolores (Barbara Garrick), react?
Never mind — it’s a red herring. The parents, it turns out, have no particular problem with their son’s sexuality (which, to be honest, feels false) but are comically blind to their own perpetuation of indentured servitude. Just as the most manifest example, they refer often to Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor), whose family has served on this plantation for 200 years, using the n-word, but, they insist, just as a perfectly practical method of distinguishing her from the white neighbor with the same moniker.
And while David, injected with a dose of college liberalism, sets about berating his parents for their views, Mary decides it’s her biblical duty to do something about David’s “abomination,” and goes about convincing her husband, Elroy (Cedric Young), that a BB in Jonathan’s crotch might just do the trick.
There’s a lot of humor in all this, the kind that evokes a laughter of unease, where the head bows slightly in embarrassment while the chortles emerge.
In a performance that’s extraordinary in its ability to balance the exaggerated with the convincing, Taylor makes Mary instantly likable and dignified. And Bradshaw gives Mary a clear arc. She is not a satirical figure; instead, she challenges her own beliefs and, as the one character capable of learning and changing, becomes the moral center of the play.
And once Bradshaw has established that moral center, he can rudely yank it out from under us.
There is pretty much equal amounts thoughtful insight and irksome contrivance in Bradshaw’s craftiness. The fact that he shows his skill at creating convincing sequences even with extreme circumstances makes it problematic when his plot points feel underdeveloped (the AIDS through line) or forcefully imposed (the final scene).
But he gets plenty of points for audacity, and simply for addressing the most uncomfortable of topics. Clearly attacking the homophobia in the African-American community while exclaiming that deep-seated prejudices remain unconsciously latent in all of us, Bradshaw has created an entertainment – and make no mistake, this is an entertaining work – that views theater as a forum for goading audiences out of complacency, refusing to provide the pat but satisfying ending where everyone learns to be nice to each other.
Bradshaw and director May Adrales don’t even bother with a curtain call. On the one hand, this suggests a concern that audience members might start bringing tomatoes to toss at the actors. But the more likely interpretation is simply that Bradshaw can barely wait to turn the lights on the audience and holler: “Discuss!”