“Really” is probably the most oft-repeated word in Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce. Characters say it constantly, punctuating assertions and expressions with the dubious intensifier. “Well, darling, really,” they admonish. Or: “I think so, really. I really do think so.” Like any turn of phrase in a Shawn play (this one is from 1978), the word’s insistent overuse is intentional, pointing to the slipperiness of knowing what anything “really” is — especially here, in the murky depths of a rollercoaster marriage where no one quite listens and no one quite hears.
Now in revival at Jack in a production directed by Knud Adams and starring Theda Hammel and Gordon Landenberger in the title roles (the pair also designed sound and set, respectively), Marie and Bruce is an unsettling study in the language of intimacy. Shawn traces a day that begins with Marie’s shattering declaration, over the body of her still-sleeping husband, that she plans to leave him. He concludes with the pair, reconciled or resigned, sleepily sipping warm milk in bed. Between these bookends, Marie hurls lengthy, barbed volleys of abuse at her mate, berating him with a vehemence designed to shock (“You goddamned piece of filthy shit”). He’s cool about it, mostly shrugging her off with mild responses (“Darling, don’t be so angry”) so disproportionate he can’t possibly be listening. Or maybe he enjoys it. The spectacle is a cruel pleasure, as agonizingly delicious as any in a Genet play or in the visions of Artaud.
As in other Shawn works, the characters’ surface doings — they eat breakfast, dress, attend a party — create the armature for an investigation of language’s fickleness, the tendency of sly phrases to say one thing and mean another. (“Really,” for instance.) Shawn’s plays often explore the potential of words to seduce; 1985’s Aunt Dan and Lemon conveys how fascism, couched in carefully structured terms, could suddenly appear reasonable and good. Marie and Bruce, for its part, expands abruptly into surrealism, when the couple parts ways briefly to run errands: Each one, alone in the city, briefly falls under the spell of a hallucinatory dreamscape.
But their visions couldn’t be more different, which is where the play’s political roilings surface. Bruce’s excursion concludes in a typical straight-guy fantasy — from a hotel room, he watches a woman through a window across the way — while Marie’s is far wilder, taking her out of the city altogether as she naps among oversized flowers and flirts with a strange but friendly dog. The play’s portrait of subjective states and crossed signals, we see, is deeply gendered, and Marie’s determination to leave Bruce, who calls her “darling” and never seems to truly hear her, begins to make sense. The gap between Marie and Bruce is heightened, or at least altered, by the fact that Hammel is trans, creating a world where a cis guy just keeps ignoring everything a trans woman says.
Hammel and Landenberger devour their roles, and their design concepts add elegance and gloom to this menacing urban milieu, a place where ambient sounds are exaggerated and the lights never fully come on. (The party scene is especially surreal, staged in the dark with the drinks in glowing tumblers.) Why revive this play, of all Shawn’s works, remains a question; Marie and Bruce is a grueling experience for artists and audiences alike. But if you were going to revive it, Adams, Hammel, and Landenberger are the artistic team you’d want. (Yes, really.)