Volume 78 / Number 9 - July 30 - August 5, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since


“Life in a Marital Institution”
Through August 31
SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam Street
(212) 691-1555; jamesbraly.com

Photo credit: Jaisen Crockett

James Braly in “Life in a Marital Institution”

Twenty years to ‘Life’

For monologuist James Braly, love means always having to say you’re sorry

By Will McKinley

“Did you find him to be annoying, arrogant and pompous?” a female audience member asked her male companion, following a recent performance of James Braly’s “Life in a Marital Institution” at the SoHo Playhouse.

“No,” the man answered flatly. And then the fireworks began.

Therein lies the Mars vs. Venus battle at the core of Braly’s entertaining monologue. At first blush, “Life in a Marital Institution” appears to be an entertaining yarn about a two-decade relationship between neurotic urbanites. But Braly’s deceptively resonant story goes deeper, to the conflict inherent in the male-female dynamic -- the periodic battles and intermittent détente that makes monogamy the stuff of story and song.

“Life” is by no means an objective report of the events between the couple’s first meeting as students and their climatic skirmishes as parents twenty years later. Mrs. Braly does not get to offer the She Said and, as such, some audience members (perhaps those lacking in X chromosomes) may feel the instinct to rise to her defense, or even to condemn the teller for the implied arrogance of a one-sided tale.

But fear not. If anything, Mr. Braly is too fair in his painfully honest recounting of the rise and fall of his marriage. At times I longed for him to break the bounds of his wry oratory, to share my male shock and awe at the behavior of his granola gone wild wife -- a woman who gives birth in an inflatable kiddie pool in a Central Park West living room, discusses placenta recipes with neighbors and breast feeds their two sons years past their expiration date. But that might be the testosterone in me talking.

In fact, Braly eschews the cheap shots and easy laughs that might be mined by a less creative writer. He rarely bashes his wife without bashing himself, at least as hard. He confesses his own misdeeds (both of action and of thought) as often as he lays bare hers. He shares his story, gender-neutral warts and all, and allows us to form our own interpretations of each partner’s unique form of madness.

But I don’t care how crazy your wife or girlfriend is, because Braly’s got you beat. And yet, the man who lived to tell maintains a frustratingly controlled detachment throughout the entire narrative. It’s as if Braly is trying not to offend us, or his wife, or people with a taste for pan-roasted human afterbirth. In that sense, Braly differs from impassioned, opinionated solo performers like Eric Bogosian, John Leguizamo and Margaret Cho, who take their audiences on an emotional roller coaster of bitter laughter and raw poignancy. Braly is more Jerry Seinfeld than George Carlin. He is the detached observer, dryly riffing on the wacky characters that keep bursting through his door. And how you feel about this show will be subject to your willingness to accept that fact, and appreciate the subtle nuances of Braly’s low-key style.

“Life in a Marital Institution” is as about as basic as live theater gets: one man, spinning a tale of love and loss. Director Hal Brooks keeps it clean, with a few lighting cues and a simple set meant to suggest a hospital waiting room. Other than that, it’s all about Braly. The salt and pepper haired forty-something -- think Richard Gere’s less unctuous younger brother -- is a charming and engaging storyteller. And he is not at all annoying, arrogant or pompous, despite what some distaff members of the audience might think.

I may question Braly’s emotionally guarded performance technique, but I understand it. In life, his strategy for surviving the insanity that threatened to engulf him was to maintain equanimity, to look the beast in the eye and to smile at it (or her). He does the same here. It’s a creative approach that may under-whelm some audience members, particularly those who prefer their entertainment pre-digested. But for those looking for relatability and resonance, “Life in a Marital Institution” is guaranteed to generate some healthy inter-gender debate.

Thank goodness for make-up sex.

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