There are plays that make you feel grateful for not having children. And there are plays that make you feel grateful for not having grown up in, say, rural Alabama. Ten minutes into the sobering comedy “Miles for Mary,” which opened Monday at Playwrights Horizons after a 2016 run off-off Broadway, you’ll feel grateful for not teaching high school students.
Amy Rubin’s hyper-realistic set captures the claustrophobia of being trapped for every working day in the teachers’ lounge of a Midwestern high school where the only window faces a corridor, and could very well be in the basement. Six teachers (one on a speaker phone) have gathered to plan the annual telethon Miles for Mary, which raises college-scholarship money for two talented student athletes.
Regarding those last two words, the emphasis is on “athletes,” not “student.” Nothing these six characters say in the course of this 105-minute play refers to learning or education. Nor is it evident than any of them ever made it to college; instead, they have instead remained locked in high school forever.
“Miles for Mary” may boast the longest writing credits ever: “Created by The Mad Ones [and] written by Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Lila Neugebauer & Stephanie Wright Thompson [i]n collaboration with Sarah Lunnie and the creative ensemble of Amy Staats & Stacey Yen.”
Neugebauer directs while all the others perform the play, meaning they all get to be credited twice in the Playbill. Something about those persnickety credits leads me to believe that at least one of those writers/actors/directors used to be a high school teacher.
Surprisingly, “Miles for Mary” never gives the impression in performance of being a bunch of polished improvisations. Although you might want to escape the theater in the opening moments of these seemingly endless telethon planning sessions, a wry humor begins to weave its way through all the verbal meandering.
And our perspective on what lengths these professionals go through to hide their true thoughts and feelings is gradually exposed to the harsh glare of the overhead fluorescent lighting. High school teachers aren’t so much politically correct as they are socially correct to the extreme in dealing with each other. In other words, almost nothing ever gets done. Outside this lounge, are they even capable of teaching?
“Miles for Mary” doesn’t have the outrageous flair of Christopher Guest’s best films, but as with “Waiting for Guffman,” there’s a strong bond of community — and also, a whiff of condescension. Like “Guffman,” “Miles for Mary” is set in Middle America (Garrison, Ohio; 1988-89, to be exact) and comes to us from people on the coast. Tellingly, Guest’s weakest film, “For Your Consideration,” attempted to skewer the awards culture of Los Angeles.
Two of the teachers in “Miles for Mary” aren’t really teachers; they’re coaches, making the intellectual content of their banter nearly nil. Fortunately, Neugebauer’s direction and her superb ensemble prevent the play from wallowing in its sense of superiority to the profession being skewered.