Before you assume that a one-man show called Life in a Marital Institution is one of those cliché Mars/Venus battle-of-the-sexes comic yarns about how men like sports and women like shoes, know that James Braly is smarter than that.
The poet, writer and storyteller – and frequent contributor to NPR and public radio shows like This American Life and Marketplace – has subtitled this performance “20 years of monogamy in one terrifying hour.” It’s a fascinating and frequently hilarious thread of confessional storytelling about meeting, falling for and continually trying to understand his wife, Susan.
Currently playing at McDavid Studio, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth, the 60-minute-on-the-nose performance has been an off-Broadway success and is being developed into a film (and a memoir) by Meredith Vieira Productions, who produce this show, directed by Hal Brooks. (In the same vein as Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me.)
James and Susan’s relationship story is not going to resonate with everyone, but that’s what makes it so daringly funny. Nobody’s relationship resembles anyone else’s; and learning that theirs is as complicated as yours, in a good way, is heartening.
Dressed in a dark suit and on a spare set that resembles a therapist’s waiting room (mini-blinds, three chairs lined up, an end table) – that’s where the “institution” comes in – Braly time-jumps through the narrative of learning to appreciate this thing he has with this woman. They argue, but not in the typical ways, and the sexual chemistry is undeniable. He calls it “tantric conflict.”
She corrects his poetry and she calls him out when necessary; she gets him. On the other hand, he doesn’t quite understand her dedication to a homeopathic lifestyle, her desire to breastfeed their boys Oliver and Owen well past the acceptable age for that, or her need for a Buddhist grief counselor in reaction to a newborn baby’s normal-but-seemingly-abnormal breathing pattern.
Or why, when they have a dinner party with new, progressive friends in an upstate New York town, there’s a discussion about what to do with your baby’s placenta. (That section is simultaneously disturbing and snort-wine-out-your-nose hysterical.)
But it’s clear that he loves trying to understand all that ─ and going with it.
From an early trip to Italy where they meet two tease-loving French women to the poetic last line, Braly gives the audience a perfect snapshot of a specific relationship experience. It’s an ongoing learning experience, and an institution of which he has no intention of checking out.