James Braly looks like he could use a stiff drink. Nobody knows the troubles he’s seen: his wife breastfeeds their 4- and 6-year-old boys, and that’s on her sane days. But after a few minutes, Braly turns out to be an oddball, too. His wife infuriates, baffles and manipulates him, but she makes him happy — sometimes by indulging his pose as the persecuted husband. For a little more than an hour, Braly’s gaspingly funny scorched-earth autobio is wittier than most standup routines, but his stony delivery belies the show’s least expected quality: a core of genuine emotion.
With his shock of longish gray hair, trendy glasses and a sport coat worn over his tucked-in, tieless blue shirt, Braly looks a little like the starchy CEO at a company picnic: clearly uncomfortable but trying to have a good time.
This is a lie. He may look and talk like the world’s only sane man, improvising a derisive snort whenever something really stupid earns his contempt, but he’s just as weird as the rest of us. If not weirder.
Consider, for example, this scene Braly sets: He and his wife are sitting around a table with a group of friends in the upstate hippie preserve of Harlemville when organic food distributor Joe admits (perhaps “brags” would be a better word, given the company) that he ate his wife’s placenta after their child was born. Rather than fleeing in terror, Braly asks him how human remains taste. Joe declines, saying the sensation is indescribable.
“Try,” Braly demands. “You’re in the food business.”
These are not the words of a sane man. And that’s a lot of what makes “Life in a Marital Institution” so much fun. On a set that looks like a doctor’s waiting room (Braly skips back and forth between marital misadventures and his bedridden, dying sister’s upcoming wedding), helmer Hal Brooks directs Braly to deliver each anecdote like he just can’t believe it’s happening to him, especially when he’s put himself in the situation.
The astounding (and repeated) hypocrisy gives audience the additional pleasure of snickering at Braly while also laughing at something he’s saying. When he’s complaining about his wife, for example, reading “My Summer With the Leprechauns: A True Story” (no, really: Blue Dolphin Publishing, 1997), it’s funny because it’s not like he didn’t know what he was getting into.
It’s worth noting that Braly’s turn as himself is an utterly commendable one. There’s plenty of Bud Abbott-ish vanity in the character, but none in the performance, and his memories of his wife’s antics are far funnier than any two-person reenactment could be. Despite his vivid descriptions, however, it’s hard not to wonder what this woman is really like in person.
“Arguing with Susan was exhilarating, and exhausting,” he says. “It was like having tantric conflict — a level of discord I’d never felt before.” In retrospect, that actually sounds kind of hot.