Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! A few months ago, I spent one long evening trapped at the JFK airport. An early time-filler (that I wish had filled more time) was Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary (1961), one of the longest-running Broadway comedies to date. Though the play was adapted into an apparently mediocre film adaptation in 1963 (which I haven’t seen, and therefore, can’t verify that it’s quality) with Debbie Reynolds, my interest in the piece was sparked by a friend who said that many theatre aficionados still maintain that Mary, Mary was the funniest show that they’d ever seen, and much of the work’s comedic style was very influential on the repartee embedded in many of the husband-and-wife situation comedies of the ’60s and ’70s. Also, he lamented that, while the piece was a huge hit in its day, the play’s unfortunate datedness keeps it from probably ever seeing a successful revival. But I wanted to find out for myself if the play worked. I wanted to find out if it could make me laugh.
The play opens as Bob (Barry Nelson), a big-time New York publisher, is set to go over his taxes with his lawyer and friend, the straightforward Oscar (John Cromwell). As Bob’s new (and much younger) fiance Tiffany (Betsy Von Furstenberg), a health nut who seemingly has converted Bob to her way of life, works in the kitchen, Oscar surprises his friend by announcing that he has invited Bob’s ex-wife, the zingy Mary (Barbara Bel Geddes), to help them sort through the books. Though Tiffany wants desperately to meet Mary, Bob is able to keep the two from interacting. When Mary does finally make her entrance, the two banter mildly, until he tells her of his soon-to-be-wife. Meanwhile, Bob’s old friend Dirk (Michael Rennie), who’s now become a Hollywood heartthrob and has written a novel that he hopes Bob will publish, drops by for a visit. Though Bob refuses to assist in the work, believing it to be of inferior quality, he jokingly tells the hunky Dirk that he will publish the book, if Dirk goes out with Mary.
The second act begins later that evening as Bob and Tiffany have left for a weekend retreat. Dirk has taken Mary out on a date, and they return to her ex-husband’s place. (She still has a key.) There the movie star begins to romance her, when Bob comes home early: there’s a blizzard out there. As Dirk retreats upstairs, Bob and Mary go at it again, with Bob insisting that Dirk is only feigning interest in Mary, naturally upsetting her. When Dirk comes back down and tells Bob otherwise, the jealous ex-husband admits his error and storms out. The third act takes place the next morning, when Tiffany meets Mary and assumes that Bob and his ex-wife have spent the night together. Bob returns and tries to tell his fiance the truth, but she insists that it’s okay–she understands. As Oscar comes back to help the exes settle their books, Dirk comes down and asks Mary to go away with him, but she is unsure of what to do and everyone weighs in. Bob flies into a jealous rage and locks Mary in a storage closet to keep her from going away with Dirk, throwing away the key. As Mary (through the door) encourages Dirk to go without her, Bob and Tiffany split. Alone at last, Mary unlocks the door with her own pair of keys, and the couple reconciles.
First, let us look at what works in Mary, Mary. Simply, the play has a great premise: exes reunite when he’s being audited, and after some jealousy, some misunderstanding, some slapstick, they reconcile. Additionally, there are a handful of lines that are still quite funny — most of them to be had in the interactions between Bob and Mary themselves. (The other three characters, though each fairly well-defined and not without their moments, simply don’t evoke the same kind of humor.) It’s rarely brilliant on the page, but much of the dialogue and the action leave ample space for a pair of expert performers to work their magic. The play on its own works best when it knows we’re in on the joke, and makes self-referential comments (like Bob’s “I’m not adult, and Noel Coward would wash his hands of me,”), and Mary, when she’s being snappy, reads a lot like Sally Rogers from The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS), and her dryness promises much amusement.
In regard to situation comedies that may have been influenced by Mary, Mary, the first thing that comes to my mind (naturally, because it always seems to be on my mind, because it SHOULD be released on DVD) is He & She (1967-1968, CBS). As the only really smart husband and wife show of the decade (save The Dick Van Dyke Show), there’s not a lot else in which we can look for similarities, except for the occasional episodic rip-off, like when Dorothy had to meet with her ex-husband when he was being audited in an episode of The Golden Girls (1985-1992, NBC). But it was easy to picture Bob’s lines in the voice of He & She‘s Richard Benjamin, and Jack Cassidy’s Oscar North, though a parody of the Batman craze and the actor’s own turn in a musical version of Superman (entitled It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman), he certainly fits the Dirk Winston type. (Meanwhile, Dick also has an accountant friend, named Murray Mouse, who really seems no different from Bob’s Oscar.) Where the piece differs greatly from the play is the wife; the indescribably kooky Paula Prentiss is nothing like Kerr’s Mary.
But Mary herself is the show’s biggest problem. Let me preface all this by saying that I have a pretty high threshold for what other people call dated. I often don’t care if a piece reeks of the time in which it was created. As I’ve said on this blog before, every work designed to entertain is a period piece — a product of its time. And thus, everything can be enjoyed, for the glimpses given of the past. I don’t mind that Tiffany is a daffy “organic-only” freak. It was becoming in vogue, and though it’s incredibly common today, it wasn’t in 1961. Additionally, I don’t mind that the lead characters smoke. In fact, I find it very funny that the two use the search for one last cigarette to avoid talking about their issues at hand. (The script itself treats the bit casually, and doesn’t make it seem that hilarious, but in capable hands, it’s obvious that it could be.) Smoking wasn’t taboo then like it is today. I’m not bothered by their smoking, and others shouldn’t be either. (When we start applying modern values to works of the past, we misunderstand them, and thus, run the risk of rewriting history.) Let a 1961 play be decidedly from 1961.
However, I am bothered by the play’s depiction of Mary, and it’s not because I think a 1961 depiction of women should conform to the standards we, the people of 2014, uphold. It’s because I find her characterization sloppy, nonsensical, trite, simplistic, and most importantly: humorless. Mary is initially described and plays most of the first act as a balls-to-the-wall comeback queen who, as is pointed out, doesn’t take a lot too seriously. She slowly devolves into an overly feminine insecure creature who is analyzed throughout the play to the point of nausea. So she uses humor to mask feelings of inadequacy? Not only is that applicable to probably every human being on the planet, this pat and shamefully easy attempt to add depth to her character unavoidably removes her sting. It makes so much sense that it makes NO sense. (Does that make sense?) When the play manipulates her character into this predictably bland waif, it’s equivalent to letting air out of a rubber tire. It’s not funny, and it’s neither original nor in-fitting with the play’s tone. (Noel Coward’s Amanda never changed her ways when she reunited with Elyot. Neither does he. That’s part of the comedy.) And I refuse to blame the insulting predictability in her character’s arc on 1961. Good writing is good writing; mediocre writing is mediocre writing.
So while the play has more going for it than you might expect — if you allow yourself to appreciate a 1961 play as a 1961 play — I must agree with the word-of-mouth and insist that Mary, Mary is not a play that demands a revival or much renewed attention. It’s flawed. And not because it’s dated; because it looks for easy answers and contradicts its sense of comic energy. But maybe I’m being too hard. What do you think of Mary, Mary? Did you see it in 1961? Have you seen/read it since? Do you think it holds up? If not, what would would you do to ‘fix’ it? I’d love to read your thoughts below!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!
I like the play as is–for its time. It shouldn’t be modernized AT ALL nor can it be (I think). Yes, there’s a bit of “uptight virgin blossoms” crap, but it’s not meant to be anything but a little better than fluffy fun. I quote “MMM, that’s real coffee!” all the time (and I don’t drink coffee). DON’T watch the movie (which I do own) which is very stagnate.
Hi, bobster427! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I agree that the piece isn’t in need of modernization. It’s a piece from 1961 and it should always remain a piece from 1961. However, I do think it’s hard to tolerate the arc of Mary’s character, which, in any time period, is too easily rendered. I longed for it to just be “fluffy fun”, but I found it heavy-handed, and thus counterintuitive to the comedy. I’m sure it played better on the stage with actors who shared strong chemistry. But I think it would take some pretty capable performers to sell her one-dimensional characterization today.
April 17, 1963 at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston still remains one of my favorite theatrical experiences — and from my second-row orchestra seat! I still maintain that Biff McGuire was better than Barry Nelson (at least on film); although Nelson was marvelous, McGuire was better. Martha Scott was 847,903 times better than Reynolds in the film. I have NO problem with Mary’s characterization or anyone else’s, and find PLENTY of humor from two of the three other characters. Off the top of my head without going to the script that has lived on my shelf longer than most others: Dirk: “Is ‘lousy’ the word you’re looking for?” when Bob is evaluating his memoir (not novel). Oscar, on Bob’s precarious financial situation (because he’s a small-time publisher and hardly a large one) after Bob is about to insist that “It’s a free country” Oscar: “Don’t you believe it. People get the most erroneous ideas from popular songs. If all you’ve got is the sun in the morning and the moon at night, you’re in trouble.”
Hi, Peter! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I envy you for having such a joyful theatrical memory. As I’ve never seen the piece on stage, I imagine that it plays much funnier with capable performers. We’ll have to agree to disagree about the rendering of the Mary character, but again, I imagine in the hands of the right person, magic could be made.
Have you seen a production since the original? I know you maintain the text’s freshness, but I’d be curious to know if any other production of MARY, MARY left you with that similar high.
Thanks again for sharing your memory of the original production!