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New York Theater

Crazy Mary

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A.R. Gurney continues to chronicle the travails of the displaced upper crust in his latest play, Crazy Mary, at Playwrights Horizons. This prolific playwright has penned over 30 full-length works, mostly dealing with the descendents of American aristocracy cast adrift in a classless society. Without the rigid structure and etiquette their forebears lived by, they flounder through life, searching for meaning amid the chaos of the modern world. Gurney has been able to wring endless entertaining variations from this central leitmotif. Many of his previous plays — The Dining Room, The Perfect Party, The Middle Ages — treat the theme comically, with only a hint of sorrow. Crazy Mary has its humorous moments, but its overall tone is tragic.

The title character is a mentally unstable heiress (a touching Kristine Nielsen), the product of an illicit liaison between a Buffalo landowner and a laundress. After a disastrous affair with a stable hand, she's been tucked away since 1973 in a Boston sanatorium, a former mansion elegantly designed by John Lee Beatty as another Gurney symbol of faded WASP glory. The plot is set in motion when distant relatives — Lydia (Sigourney Weaver), a cash-strapped divorcée, and Skip (Michael Esper), Lydia's disaffected son — come to call after decades of neglect. Everyone has a stake in Mary's recovery: Lydia could use some of Mary's considerable fortune. Skip develops a close attachment to her and begins cutting classes at Harvard to bring her back to life. Even her doctor (Mitchell Greenberg) sees a potential bestseller in her story.

There are a few implausibilities sprinkled throughout Gurney's script. If Lydia has been reduced to scrimping to pay for Skip's Ivy League education, would she really be so in the dark about her family's finances? Would Skip become sexually as well as emotionally drawn to Mary? Yet Gurney's solid structure and compassion for his characters, and Jim Simpson's understated direction, more than make up for these inconsistencies.

Nielsen has always been stellar in her comic performances, particularly in the madcap plays of Christopher Durang. There has always been a hint of lunacy peeking out from behind her mischievous eyes. Here she tempers the zaniness with the tender ache of disappointed love, and the results are heartbreakingly real. The most moving scene in the play occurs when Mary begs Lydia to take her to Buffalo and then regresses to a near catatonic state when Lydia refuses. Nielsen's Mary is like a puppy, almost jumping on Lydia in her eagerness to be accepted, which makes Mary's total withdrawal all the more devastating.

Weaver lends Lydia a patrician air and a stinging self-awareness. Esper gives full vent to Skip's conflicted desires. Greenberg makes for a professional and caring therapist, and Myra Lucretia Taylor gives a fully developed performance in the relatively small role of Pearl, Mary's nurse.

While Crazy Mary may not be perfect, it does offer a tour de force from Nielsen, one of our leading character actors, and yet another chapter in A.R. Gurney's thoughtful examination of a segment of American society seeking to regain its place in the sun.

Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons,

416 W. 42nd St., NYC.

June 3-17. Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.

(212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.

Casting by Alaine Alldaffer.

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