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Review - “The Testament of Mary” and “The Nance” welcome Broadway additions

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Fiona Shaw stars in Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.
Fiona Shaw stars in Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

It can’t have been easy being mother of God, but the Bible actually tells us comparatively little about Mary. There’s barely a record of a word she spoke, other than to confirm she’d play her part once God’s plan was revealed to her.

It’s a bit of an oversight considering her historical importance, isn’t it? Matthew and Luke mention her occasionally in the Gospels, but Mark barely mentions her at all.

Apparently she’s there to perform her miraculous birth and then disappear from the story as Jesus takes over. Only St. John mentions her presence at the wedding feast of Cana and later in the last terrible hours on Calvary.

You could say it’s a tale as old as Hollywood (older actually). Once her role in the story is performed she’s written out and the lead takes over.

That absence and silence has apparently intrigued Irish novelist and playwright Colm Toibin for decades, as his meditative and immensely subtle play The Testament of Mary, now playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre on West 48th Street, makes clear.

Toibin’s Mary, played by Ireland’s most accomplished theater actress Fiona Shaw, is not the meek and accepting doormat of Christian tradition. She drinks, she swears, she’s opinionated and she’s deeply afraid of the New Testament writers that keep her under a kind of house arrest as they interrogate her for her memories of her increasingly famous child.

This Mary does not believe in the great project that her son’s followers envision. She thinks they’re misfits who led her all too credulous offspring to an early death. But it’s the work Toibin does in the realm between myth and reality that makes this play utterly remarkable.

The Testament of Mary explores the myths of death and resurrection the Gospels are based on, but it never quite demolishes them. Instead Tobin creates an unsettling ambiguity, no more so that when Mary recounts the tale of the resurrection of Lazarus.

Bringing a buried corpse back to life, as Jesus reputedly did, is miraculous, but it is also unspeakably horrific. It upends the natural order of life. There is something profoundly sinister about the action, something that cannot be overlooked in the joy of an unexpected reunion.

Paying very close attention to the threat that Jesus represented then (and now) to the established order, Toibin allows his Mary a mother’s exasperation and fear of the political and social consequences. She understands better than her son what his growing band of followers means, and what can happen to individuals who challenge the states order.

Shaw’s performance is the production’s greatest asset. Her fury and her focus carries this impressively cerebral text and its writerly effects past passages that perform like literature rather than theater.

Tom Pye's set provides the subtlest design I have ever seen on a Broadway stage. Its revelatory power aids the production immensely.

If you’re looking for a play that takes a bulldozer to the life and miracles that form the basis of the Gospels, this is not it. The small band of Madonna wielding protestors that lined up before the play opened need not have bothered.

It isn’t blasphemous. Instead it poses questions that two millennia have failed to answer. That partly explains their enduring power.

Three blocks away, Jack O’Brien’s particularly nimble direction makes The Nance, now playing at the Lyceum on 45th Street, one of the strongest new productions to open on Broadway this season.
Set in the world of 1930s burlesque, the play tells the story of Chauncey Miles (Nathan Lane) a headline performer that draws the crowds each night.

In the parlance of New York burlesque, a nance was slang for a man who plays the part of an effeminate homosexual on stage. This being the theater, though, the irony is that the man is usually a homosexual. “It’s a bit like a black man wearing black face,” Lane quips at one point.

Onstage Lane is brittle, funny and transgressive, but what is permitted onstage for laughs is often violently denied him offstage, with increasingly tragic results.

Douglas Carter Beane’s new play is at times a treasure box of vanished performance styles from burlesque’s heyday, and at best it references and stands shoulder to shoulder alongside Broadway classics like Cabaret.

This tender, moving and unspeakably funny new play features flawless supporting help from the talented cast is one of the best things to have arrived on Broadway this decade. Miss it at your peril.

Theatre reviews by Cahir O'Doherty, Irish Voice Arts Editor

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