“What’s the matter, Mary Jane?” Alanis Morissette sang in 1995. “You never seem to want to dance anymore.” She could have been singing to the eponymous protagonist of Amy Herzog’s understated new play, who would love to dance, or smoke pot, or hike in the mountains, but all her time and energy are taken up caring for her severely ill 2½-year old son, Alex.
Mary Jane is a micro-plotted examination of how women survive when they are responsible for the survival of others. When Alex was born with cerebral palsy, seizure disorder, and lung disease, his father split. At least Mary Jane (Carrie Coon) has a job with benefits, which pays for in-home nurses, but it’s hard to find any who will take on Alex’s case, so she sometimes has to settle for the nurses she can get, even if they’re not the most competent.
Herzog’s last play, Belleville, was a plot-heavy melodrama of secrecy and violence. As though embarrassed by its narrative bravado, Herzog has swung back to the other extreme; Mary Jane is almost entirely conversation-driven. Only two things actually happen in the play: Alex has a bad seizure that sends him to the hospital, and Alex gets sent to surgery after several months in the hospital. There’s no other incident to speak of. Though the lack of conflict sank Sarah Ruhl’s recent For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, the exchanges that make up the bulk of Mary Jane are well-acted and nuanced; what drama there is springs from the often-implied means the characters use to solicit support and strength.
Anne Kauffman directs the play as a chamber drama television show, meeting Herzog’s naturalistic speech rhythms with a staging that values stillness over action. The mostly-female design team, which includes Emily Rebholz (costume) and Leah Gelpe (sound), take their cues from Laura Jellinek’s hyper-realistic set design. Mary Jane’s apartment is lower middle class chic: aquamarine walls, paint fading around the baseboards, mismatched white stove and stainless steel refrigerator, discolored white linoleum floor. The space feels intimate and lived-in; worn but not entirely joyless, like Mary Jane herself. The narrow, rectangular proscenium arch Jellinek has crafted acts as an anamorphic widescreen frame, at once magnifying the characters and pressing them into the ground with its low ceiling. When the set opens up to create the hospital, the tight frame disappears and the set impressionistically suggests the various sterile rooms and the terror of the unknown that so often accompanies extended hospital stays.
Carrie Coon has made a name for herself in recent years in both prestige television (Fargo, The Leftovers) and film (Gone Girl). With her single malt alto voice, she is a stolid presence even when her characters’ worlds are disintegrating, and always the most fascinating thing on screen. She’s no less interesting in Mary Jane, but has raised her voice a few steps. This is in part to reach the back of the auditorium, but also a canny move to make Mary Jane a child herself, aged by her experience, but scared and lonely.
The supporting cast members each play two roles. Of note are Liza Colón-Zayas as a Boricua nurse with seemingly bottomless compassion and an overworked but sympathetic doctor, and Brenda Wehle as Mary Jane’s long-suffering super and a seven-month Buddhist hospital chaplain. Susan Pourfar’s Chaya, another mother of a sick child, brings welcome comic relief near the end.
The characters occasionally disagree, and even the indefatigable Mary Jane eventually loses her cool at an overworked hospital music therapist, but there is none of the cattiness that so often characterizes such homosocial plays about women. Like caring work itself, Herzog’s play is often arduously repetitive and monotonous, but it’s also resolute in its celebration of the everyday, unheralded ways women support each other in the face of an indifferent public.
The play offers little closure. The audience doesn’t know if Alex will survive or even how Mary Jane will cope, but those concerns are secondary. What emerges is not so much a sketch of lone woman who never wants to dance, but a portrait of a community of women, both onstage and off, vibrating uniquely, as one.
Mary Jane runs through Oct. 29 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, and at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call 212-460-5475 or visit nytw.org.