'Marie and Bruce' looks for love in the ruins

This may be an odd thing to say about "Marie and Bruce,"Wallace Shawn's sardonically bleak portrayal of marital misery, but Catastrophic Theatre's current show likely will make most people feel good about their own partnerships.

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This may be an odd thing to say about "Marie and Bruce,"Wallace Shawn's sardonically bleak portrayal of marital misery, but Catastrophic Theatre's current show likely will make most people feel good about their own partnerships.

Shawn's title characters, you see, constitute such a toxic tangle of contempt and complacency that just about any relationship, no matter how awful, would look swell by comparison.

Premiered in London in 1979, "Marie and Bruce" is a sort of under-the-radar minor classic of avant garde black comedy. Catastrophic Theatre's current production reunites director Jason Nodler and stars Tamarie Cooper andCharlie Scott, who memorably essayed the title roles in 1999. The current production is just as scathing and funny. But as befits the passage of years for these actors (and much of their audience), it's also more nuanced, rueful and deeply felt.

The play begins with Marie unleashing a flood of expletive-strewn invective explaining why she detests Bruce and plans to leave him, while the rumpled object of her contempt drowses in bed, occasionally stirring to gurgle such bland consolations as, "Don't be irritable, darling."

That establishes Shawn's modus operandi, at least for the first part of the play. Time and again, Marie'sformidable rage and frustration prove futile, barely registering with the trivial, impervious Bruce.

But as the play follows them through the day and other activities, Shawn gradually reveals other aspects of Marie and Bruce's troubling alliance. The play culminates in their attendance at the party from hell, encountering a set of patently ridiculous pseudo-friends.

Though, initially, Bruce may be seen as slyly getting Marie's goat with his armor of cluelessness, he later shows more awareness and his own frustration. Marie, too, gets beyond her initial rage, mining more complex feelings of yearning and dissatisfaction. Especially when Shawn gives each an extended, surreal monologue detailing each character's individual journey through New York to meet at the party, we realize there's more to Shawn's title characters than just the opening scene's template. By the end, one even senses a faint glimmer of the affection that once drew the two together.

The party itself registers as a mini-masterpiece of deadpan satire, as one after another of the ridiculous guests preposterously pontificates on various outlandish themes and theories. Always at cross purposes, everyone talks but no one seems to connect. Poor Marie, so fed up with Bruce's triviality, must now endure a quintet of other characters almost as irritating - maybe more so.

Skillfully and subtly staged by Nodler, with Cooper and Scott deeply right as Marie and Bruce, Catastrophic's current rendition is a testament to the power of continuing, decades-long collaboration among gifted theater artists with a shared vision. This time, Nodler slightly underplays the viciousness, so while the play is still biting, more of the sadness shows through.

Cooper's Marie is a perfect balance of fury and utter frustration, tempered with acid sarcasm but also flashes of genuine despair.

Scott makes Bruce both exasperating and somehow ingratiating. As this innocuous, infantile adult, he's so pathetic he's amusing.

Several Catastrophic regulars score in the party vignettes, with audience favorites Kyle Sturdivant and Greg Dean registering especially vividly as ridiculously ranting guests.