In high school, chances are you didn’t hang around teachers longer than was necessary. That would have been weird. Or just boring. Well, we’re grown-ups now, but the faculty confabs in the nearly two-hour Miles for Mary are still pretty strange. And dull. But note: It’s tactical boredom — part of the fun of this meticulous, retro workplace study from the ingenious troupe the Mad Ones. Miles premiered at the Bushwick Starr in 2016; this encore mounting, at Playwrights Horizons, lets you revel in the company members’ finely shaded portraits and minutely calibrated rivalries. It’s a fly-on-the-wall piece with no discernible plot, shocking revelations, or villains. And yet you can’t take your eyes off Amy Rubin’s superbly drab Phys Ed teachers’ lounge, complete with stationary bike, queasy lime linoleum, and florescent flicker.
The late-Eighties setting will be of special interest to anyone who shrugged through adolescence in the age of Reagan, Black Monday, and The Breakfast Club. Six instructors from Garrison High assemble to plan the school’s annual telethon to raise money for scholarships. On hand are chipper, slightly thick coaches Sandra Bulkman (Stephanie Wright Thompson), Rod Dietrich (Joe Curnutte), and David Eagan (Michael Dalto); the timid, mustachioed head of the A/V department, Ken Wyckoff (Marc Bovino); his long-suffering, AP English–teacher wife, Julie (Stacey Yen); and high-strung counselor Brenda Zadakian (Amy Staats), on speakerphone. The latter had a serious accident in the summer that keeps her at home, a mishap that is never explained. In fact, there’s plenty here that’s not spelled out. Julie and Ken’s marriage seems to be buckling under trust issues. At one point, Ken enunciates the word relationship at Sandra in the most insinuating, contemptuous way possible. Part of the delight is guessing at subtext and shared histories.
It’s also in waiting for the enforced politeness of the faculty meetings to devolve into animosity. (There is a swear jar that gets fed.) And, right on cue, just as you’ve heard enough about budget minutiae and phone lines and idiotic “Traveling Through Time” themes, Ken melts down over David’s patronizing tone, unleashing a wave of honesty that borders on sadistic cruelty. The backbiting and squabbling that follows has a comically cathartic intensity, even if our characters later return to their default modes of banality and passive-aggressive cheer.
Directed by the in-demand Lila Neugebauer, the production is a carefully orchestrated slice of nostalgia, a bittersweet portrait of teamwork in which the individual players, while not saints, are all genuinely decent folks trying to do the right thing of raising cash for deserving student athletes. Each of the characters could have been cranked a few notches into caricatures of jocks, dweebs, or geeks, but the actors and Neugebauer have too much respect for their humanity and inner lives to settle for a kitschy cartoon. (The Duffer Brothers of Stranger Things manage a similar balancing act in their own Eighties homage.) Using low-key acting and overlapping dialogue, and avoiding traditional scene buttons, the play keeps you focused on the interpersonal dynamics, the way each teacher is not so far removed from the (unseen) teenagers they serve. Part cringe comedy, part anthropological investigation, Miles for Mary emerges as another worthy addition to an interesting recent subgenre: workplace dramedies rendered in granular realism. (Other examples are the Debate Society’s Buddy Cop 2, Annie Baker’s The Flick, last summer’s The Workshop, and The Wolves, also staged by Neugebauer.) Just how real is it? At one point, Sandra makes a pot of coffee; you can smell the cheap Folgers grounds as they percolate, while sound designer Stowe Nelson makes sure we hear the machine’s every burp and gurgle under the dialogue.
What sets Miles for Mary apart is method. The Mad Ones make devised theater: Their scripts are developed collectively through period research and improvisation (earlier shows explored the cultural landscapes of the Fifties and Seventies). The result has an organic immediacy and deep-grained authenticity, even if you chuckle at the dated coifs and clothing (by Ásta Bennie Hostetter). British filmmaker and theater auteur Mike Leigh works in a similar, improv-heavy way, and at times Miles resembles one of his elliptical, pleasantly meandering dramas.
It also made me muse: What makes for a memorable theatrical character? Why is Hamlet more alive to us than, say, Willy Loman’s boss? Physical uniqueness? Stylized dialogue? Having an obsession or a quirk? All are plausible answers, but the Mad Ones’ formula is backstory. The excellent actors — all doing extremely colorful, nuanced work — seem to base each gesture or pause or grudge on a fully dimensional personal history, of which we only catch a glimpse. Such a partial reveal makes us lean forward and want to know each one better. They are by turns adorable, exasperating, pathetic, and vividly, convincingly human. They’re real. Heck, I think some of them were my teachers.