Adaptation of 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' affectionate, uneven

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Too much of a good thing? "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" at Annex Theater.

"Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," the tribute to the 1970s soap opera parody staged by Annex Theater, has a great pre-show -- a fun loop of commercials playing on a vintage TV set.

The title character of the Norman Lear-launched original was obsessed with television and the products forever being hawked on air. The look in her eye, as glazed as the waxy build-up on her kitchen floor, spoke volumes about American consumer culture of the day.

And the increasingly messy situations Mary found herself snared by in her not-so-idyllic hometown of Fernwood encapsulated so many things about the real world back then, while being played out via the dreadfully belabored methods of the traditional soap opera genre.

The satire depended so much on TV itself -- all those stereotypical close-ups, the snail-like pacing  -- that a staged version cannot help but suffer in the translation. Then again, there's something be said for getting to relive scenes from the show with the sound of laughter breaking out in the house; there was no laugh track on the TV version.

Maggie Villegas, who wrote the adaptation and directs the Annex production at the tiny Chicken Box, is a passionate fan of the original, and it's evident at every turn.

This is, above all, an affectionate tribute to a show that shoved boundaries aside, happily mixed the absurd and the frightening. But, in attempting to boil the essence of 325 episodes down to a night of theater, Villegas ends up with a little too much of a good thing.

A nicely judged first act gives way to an over-stuffed second, which often dragged on opening night, when the total running time approached two hours and 45 minutes (with one intermission). Also taking a toll that night were several actors who had not quite settled into their lines and/or characters.

That said, this memory trip is, at its best, just that -- a trip. The whole, weird world of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," and those dreadful '70s that it so brilliantly skewered, comes quite amusingly into focus. A droll fantasy sequence along the way is especially effective. 

A big plus in this venture is the spot-on performance of Carly J. Bales in the title role, so memorably created by Louise Lasser. It's not so much an imitation as it is a similar case of character absorption. Bales has what it takes to be Mary Hartman, through and through, and her portrayal is bound to get even more telling as the show's run continues.

The other standout is Connor Kizer as Grandpa Larkin, a.k.a. the Fernwood Flasher. He delivers a welcome jolt every time he appears. Note, too, the colorful work from Gina Denton as Mary's mother; Madison Coan as Heather Hartman, the girl who witnesses a mass murder in town; and Dave Iden as an odd cop and a manic hostage-taker.

Emona Stoykova has designed a clever, evocative set that allows for quick, simple scene-changes, and Samantha Bloom's costumes are likewise flavorful. And freshly made complements to the period commercials on display add a cool touch.

 

         

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