Bleeding hearts: ‘Marie and Bruce’ is a breakup comedy with edge

Bleeding hearts: ‘Marie and Bruce’ is a breakup comedy with edge
Dinner date: In the acerbic Wallace Shawn play “Marie and Bruce,” playing at Jack through July 28, the title characters are on the verge of breaking up.
Knud Adams

These characters cut deep.

New York life can leave anyone cynical and sharp-edged, but if you ever need to feel like a basically decent human, just compare yourself to any character in a Wallace Shawn play. If you know Shawn only as Vizzini, the guy who says “Inconceivable!” in “The Princess Bride,” you are missing out. His 1978 play “Marie and Bruce,” playing through July 28 at Clinton Hill’s Jack theater, is about a single, deeply vicious day in the life of a relationship (or possibly a slightly-worse-than-normal day in a deeply twisted relationship) — the day that Marie decides to leave her husband Bruce.

Marie (Theda Hammel) is consumed by loathing for Bruce (Gordon Landenberger). As the show starts, she has not told him she is leaving him, and he seems completely oblivious to her disgust. Their day and their relationship come to a crisis after they attend a party. Bruce gets drunk; they go home — together, still.

Transgender actress, designer, and musician Hammel has magnetic stage presence, but not the acting chops for the role. You cannot take your eyes off her, but she plays Marie at one emotional pitch: lashing contempt with a dash of boredom. It is hard to imagine Bruce failing to register her attitude. Landenberger is subtler, helped by a part whose bland shallowness counts as a character trait), but also one-note. Hammel and Landenberger are both part of the show’s design team, and their designs are stronger than their performances. Hammel’s heightened soundscape, complemented by original music — much of which she plays live — gives ambience to Landenberger’s streamlined set, which is dominated by dirty mattress ticking and textured tinfoil.

Director Knud Adams leans in to the piece’s interpersonal claustrophobia, forcing actors into intimate groups. Casting comedians for the roles of partygoers and restaurant patrons adds lightness and fun to scenes that could be grim — but the buoyancy of those scenes shows up the lack of texture in the leads.

This show is a tight, poisonously acerbic 80 minutes of insults punctuated by reverie and farce, as Marie and Bruce have surreal experiences on the street and eavesdrop on alternately horrifying and hilarious discussions.

You would never want to be trapped in party conversation with Marie, Bruce, or anyone else in this play, but they combine like a train wreck — it is hard to look away.

“Marie and Bruce” at Jack (505 Waverly Ave. between Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue in Clinton Hill, www.jackny.org). July 18–21 and 24–28 at 8 pm. $18.

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