Teachers Tackle a Fund Raiser for a Dead Girl: Trouble Up Ahead (Play Review)

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Miles for Mary



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Never mind the latest smart phone. Do you remember the first time you saw a phone that had six different buttons to take calls on six lines?

I remember it from back in the 1980s and my head spun around on my shoulders trying to figure out how it worked. That feeling consumes everybody in Miles for Mary, a play about a 1987 telethon to raise money for a dead local high school student that opened last week at Playwrights Horizon, on West 42d Street, in New York.

A group of six teachers meets often to discuss the annual telethon and they break into a huge dispute over the six-line phone because Ken, who got it, was only supposed to buy a five line phone.

Miles for Mary is an often very funny play about corporate and organizational meetings (we’ve all sat through them) that go nowhere and set the participants against each other. The meetings at this local high school in Ohio are conducted in a teacher’s meeting room with one member, who is ill, participating from home over the phone. Everybody makes stupid suggestions and everybody else agrees with them. It is dumb and dumber at the sock hop. They dive into endlessly uninteresting topics and become so caught up in the telethon that they forget about the girl who died.

There is David, who just loves being the chairperson, the boss, the husband and wife team of Ken and Julie, cute and perky Sandra (don’t you just hate those people?), phys ed teacher Rod, and Brenda, the woman on the phone who finally makes it to the very last meeting. They play games with each other, revel in their love of the girl they have difficulty remembering, joke about Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and complain about all the late 1980s electronic doo dads none of them can master.

The problem with Miles for Mary is that the play has too many miles. It is about two hours long but the action in the story does not take place until the very end. The first two thirds of the show are mildly funny, but wooden. Nothing happens. There is lots of banter, but little else. You sit there and say to yourself, when is his play going to take off and go somewhere? These teachers should do something – put kids in detention, grade papers, make fun of the principal.

It might have been a classic, award winning one act play, but the actors, who also wrote it as members of The Mad Ones, seem to have lost the plot somewhere out on the high school’s football field. The Mad Ones seem to have gone mad themselves.

If the play was staged as a one act, some 55 or 60 minutes in length, the action at the end of the play would have come much sooner and the show would have been better. Rich, deep characters are created in the first fifteen minutes of the drama, so that would have served the one act play well. Here, at nearly two hours, and so much dead time, the audience starts to squirm. An audience that squirms is not a good thing.

And how do these people treat each other so gingerly for so long, and over so many meetings. None of them breaks off into small groups to complain about the dullness of the meetings, as people do in real life. Everybody thinks the utterly inane subjects the people in the group discuss are terribly interesting. Who could possibly think that?

This is a shame, too, because the acting in the play is really superb. Michael Dalto is David, the chairperson, and is perfect as the make-everybody-happy faculty leader. Marc Bovino is riveting as Ken, who winds criticized by just about everybody for doing what they told him to do in buying the six line phone. Bovino is good as the master dull teacher turned minotaur on the loose. His wife Julie (Stacey Yen) is the model of restrained loveliness, until she blows her top. Joe Curnutte is the muscular and truculent phys ed teacher, and a good one. Nobody, but nobody, can sugar coat everything like Amy Staats as Brenda. Stephanie Wright Thompson, as Sandra, is a teacher who loves all and agrees with all, no matter how they feel. Director Lila Neugebauer does good work in overseeing them and pften working around the sometimes soggy scipt.

The one question that never gets answered is how these people, year after year, could continue to work with each other? Oh well, that a question for next semester.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Playwrights Horizon. Sets: Amy Rubin, Costumes: Asta Bennie Hostetter, Lighting: Mike Inwood, Sound: Stowe Nelson, Additional members of The Mad Ones: Lila Neugebauer and Sarah Lunnie. The show is directed by Lila Neugebauer. The play runs through February 18.


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