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Theater review: The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary flashes back to the '80s

Written by
Helen Shaw

Look. It's been a hard year for everyone. It's far from done; we've got suffering yet to go. So as a citizen concerned with the collective health of the polis, it's my duty to inform you that a temporary remedy is at hand. Your troubles lift from your shoulders while you're watching the Mad Ones show Miles for Mary, a bittersweet comedy about high-school committee work in 1989. For the Netflix fans, it's Stranger Things without the scary stuff; for fans of “serious meetings” theater, it's Oslo with low stakes and acid-washed jeans. Essentially, it's pure delight, an easy way to pay a few bucks for radiating pleasure.

After pieces like The Tremendous Tremendous and The Essential Straight and Narrow, we already expect the Mad Ones to stun us with period particulars, to conceal their plot under a welter of naturalistic conversation. Miles for Mary is no different. Amy Rubin's photo-perfect set is the Garrison High School P.E. coaches' office, cluttered with motivational slogans (“Be Positive Don't Panic”), a stationary bike and an out-of-date food pyramid pull-down poster. Let yourself wallow in all its '80s goodness. What will be the thing that makes you cry out in happy recognition? For me it was a can of Hawaiian Punch; for you, it might be the tracksuit on Coach Sandra (Stephanie Wright Thompson) or the way English teacher Julie Wyckoff-Barnes (Stacey Yen) styles her bangs. (Ásta Bennie Hostetter did the incredible costume design.)

The company is hugely collaborative: some are co-artistic directors; some are co-writers (including their director Lila Neugebauer); everyone's a contributor. And that collectivity has made for precision, invention, richness. The Mad Ones are much like the Debate Society, where many minds encourage work full of allusion: There's always a complex outside-world to refer to and, of course, copious character detail. In the Ones's case, their working method has also meant work that's about collaboration itself. They always make pieces about companies, groups that have to create together, over time.

This go-round the company paints the portrait of Garrison's faculty committee, an all-volunteer group organizing a telethon in the name of a much-missed student-athlete. Here, all the proprieties of board protocol are correct, but the content is gloriously, hilariously bad. Theme proposals like Rock Around the Clock get approving murmurs; wrestling coach Roddy (Joe Curnutte) proposes they start the telethon with a kid dressed up as the Big Bang—and the idea is greeted with rapture. This nonsense keeps us laughing even while the frustrations of committee work and other, more personal, collaborations pile up. Julie's husband Ken (Marc Bovino) thinks they should add a phone line; acting committee chair David (Michael Dalto) tries to manage everyone's suddenly turbulent feelings. “Do we need a real-time check-in?” he asks Julie, after a fraught exchange about the intercom feature. Everyone's feelings are listened to, catered to—and yet still, the arguments blossom.

Miles for Mary plays on a host of nostalgic emotions at once—it isn't just the '80s it wants you to remember. Specifically, Mary returns us to the very day we realized our teachers were people, that they spent most of every day figuring out how to help us, that they thought about us even after we had graduated and gone on. In Miles for Mary, this dedicated little committee keeps reminding one another, all through the year and their many meetings, “We're doing this for the kids.” You too were once surrounded by a whole staff of people who thought this steadily and carefully about you.

What's incredible is that we all were. Do you remember that feeling? The night I saw Miles, the audience was in various stages of shocked happiness. Only one fellow clapped slowly, his eyebrows raised, unimpressed. That chap was—I'm guesstimating here—eleven. Okay, fair. Perhaps it's too hard to see your teachers humanized when you've got a current-events quiz on Monday. Perhaps all this nostalgia, huggable as a body-pillow, doesn't apply if you don't remember the first Clinton administration. But for the rest of us, damned lucky to be old, Miles for Mary is being run in our honor and memory. And so, to approximate the words of the immortal Crowded House, “Go now, go now.” Don't dare dream it's over—it runs through October 29.

Bushwick Starr (Off-Off Broadway). Devised by The Mad Ones. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission. Through Nov 12. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Helen Shaw on Twitter: @Helen_E_Shaw

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