By the time you take your seat at the new Off Broadway revival of Wallace Shawn's 1979 play Marie and Bruce, the drama is already in full swing. Marie (Marisa Tomei) lies awake in the bed of her middle-class 1980s New York City apartment, smoking and glaring while her husband Bruce (Frank Whaley) snores away. The effect is exhilaratingly intimate we've tiptoed into the epicenter of a marital crisis in medias res.
But as soon as Marie speaks, unleashing the first of her many long-winded rants against Bruce, the hum of excitement fizzles. Shawn's wry dirge to a dying relationship turns out to have just one note: scorn. Marie hates her husband for reasons she articulates poorly (though at impressive length). Over the course of the play's sole, actionless act, she eviscerates him in their apartment, at a dinner party, and at a café. He smiles and shrugs, and the process repeats. Characters this puzzling and hyperverbal must be as intriguing to play as they are insufferable to watch. How else to explain the presence of Tomei, buoyant as ever and completely adrift?
In one of the show's small victories, she manages to bring Marie a touch of warmth even though her lines won't let us in on its source. Whaley makes a likable partner, but his Bruce is never more than a bouncing board for Marie's endless insults. Careful staging (courtesy of director Scott Elliott) makes the characters feel whisper-close almost near enough that you might be tempted, as the play limps toward an unrewarding end, to lean forward and politely ask them to keep their problems to themselves. C-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)