'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' resurrects the '70s soap-opera parody with dark, playful humor

City Paper

Everyone has different ways of dealing with crisis. Some of us like to retreat into our favorite books, others prefer hiding at the bottom of a glass. Mary Hartman, however, thinks we should all just go out to the House of Pancakes. 

Maggie Villegas’ “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” an adaptation of Norman Lear’s 1970s soap-opera parody of the same name, poses, and occasionally answers, questions about the authenticity of personal experience in a world increasingly driven and shaped by consumerism. Carly J. Bales plays the titular Mary Hartman, a suburban housewife who seeks refuge from the tribulations of her life in freeze-dried instant coffee, a toilet-cleaning schedule, and Reader’s Digest. It is this juxtaposition between tragedy and the mundane that gives “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” its absurd and often funny tone.

The show opens with Mary and her sister (Sarah Jacklin) discussing Mary’s overuse of polish and the resulting “waxy yellow buildup” on her kitchen floors. A newsman interrupts the conversation to inform them that someone just murdered a family of five—and their two goats, and eight chickens—just down the block. While her sister sobs, Mary responds by asking the reporter if he, too, can see the yellow residue on her tile. 

Before the murders, the newsman says, he was reporting on a schoolyard flasher who happens to be Mary’s grandfather. As if that weren’t enough, Mary’s marriage is falling apart. Oh, and her daughter is being pursued by the perpetrator of the mass killings.

If you think that’s a lot to resolve in Act II, you’re right. The Hartman family manages to make it to intermission through sheer dumb luck, and as the lights go down we’re led to believe that they’ll come back up again on a comedy-of-manners-esque resolution. (After all, we just witnessed the fearless Connor Kizer as Grandpa embrace full-frontal nudity during a rant about peanut butter.) But remember, this is a soap opera miniseries condensed into a few hours, which means that instead of a cheerful resolution, the story lines just escalate, subjecting Mary to more twists, turns, and stressors to a point of near-cacophony.

A bright spot in the second act came in the form of what can only be described as a garbage ballet as the other characters dance around Mary, holding crumpled McDonald’s bags, empty Wheaties boxes, and jars of Jif peanut butter. This tongue-in-cheek wedding of mass-produced objects to Mary’s happiness is perhaps the most successful treatment of consumerism in the entire show. 

Villegas’ adaptation returns to a direct treatment of consumerism during the final scene of the show. Unfortunately by this point, Bales, whose Mary dominated the stage with ease in the first act, has been run ragged by the script of the second. She does wonders throughout the play to convey both Mary’s strength and fragility, oscillating feverishly between nervous timidity and tireless resolve. But the onslaught of ill-fated events forced upon Mary in the last few scenes is almost too much for us to process, and certainly too much for Bales to navigate in such a short time. As a result Bales faces what might have otherwise been a successful epilogue in a fitful, breathless state. Mary is confronted by who we assume to be advertising professionals (played with perfect film-noir mystery by Gina Denton, Madison Coan, and Sarah Jacklin) who berate her with questions about the level of happiness and satisfaction in her life. When asked if she feels dehumanized, Mary can only stammer that she trusts the validity of her own experiences, refusing to acknowledge the manufacture of those experiences by the advertising industry itself. Ultimately, the show ends in despair, doing little to capture its lighthearted journey, leaving us feeling blindsided, if not a bit guilty for laughing along the way. 

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