downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 | Issue 27 | November 17 - 23, 2006

Theater

Life in a Marital Institution
Written and Performed by James Braly
Directed by Hal Brooks
Showing November 21 and 28
Ars Nova Theater
511 West 54th Street
(212-868-4444; SmartTix.com)

Master storyteller James Braly

Take my wife — just kidding

By Jennifer DeMeritt

You love her, you need her, but she’s cold-storing your seven-year-old son’s placenta in the back of the freezer. How do you stay married? James Braly explores this and other domestic dilemmas in his solo show “Life in a Marital Institution,” which runs for a limited engagement at the Ars Nova Theater on November 21 and 28.

“Life in a Marital Institution” is the culmination of 20 years of holy matrimony and five years of talking about it on stage. Braly started telling stories on stage at the Moth StorySLAM, the popular bi-monthly storytelling competition, and he quickly developed a knack for creating five-minute nuggets that elegantly encapsulated the dramas of a man at mid-life: resisting temptation from the beautiful French woman his wife befriends on vacation; struggling with his young son’s desire for a pink – pink?!? – bike; being the horny man alone in a hotel room who’s hypnotized by a Britney Spears video.

In anyone else’s voice, these laments would sound trite, but Braly can make even a pathetic episode of pop-tart wanking sound funny and somehow enlightening. His story-telling mojo has earned him two victories at the Moth’s annual Grand Slam Championship, a place in the Moth National Story Tour, spots on NPR, and a performance at the Whitney Museum.

Braly says that he got into storytelling as “an act of survival,” a way to make sense of married life and a pre-wife life that are both best described as bananas. His wife Susan is the clear-headed scholarship student who gave him a center and inspired him to be a better man when his crazy mother had cancer and his family was splitting apart at the seams. But the pursuit of betterment is fraught with danger. Fast forward to child-raising, and the wifely beacon of betterment truly believes that if breast milk is healthier than anything else the kids can eat, it makes perfect sense to breast feed them until they’re seven. And so James finds that he’s committed to a family that confounds him as much as the one he was born into.

The irony of this debacle is that James doesn’t seem like he’d need to survive anything he didn’t want to. Handsome, urbane and devastatingly articulate, he’s the man you want to sit next to at the dinner party. So why hasn’t he become the mid-life cliche who tosses his wife overboard? Because Susan is his emotional lifeboat. Yes, he’s drifted into strange seas of frozen placentas, home-birth gurus and blue balls, but he can’t navigate life without her.

“Life in a Marital Institution” currently contains a half-dozen stories that capture the major emotional themes of his marriage, and refracts them through the lens of his parents and family.

Audiences will meet the ex-fighter pilot dad who transferred his ferociousness from North Korean bombing runs to the ice cream aisle; the sister who runs a makeup shop called “Veneer” without irony; the half Sioux medicine man Susan consulted about natural childbirth; and of course Susan herself — Braly’s wife and muse.

His first trial run of the solo show in February at Dixon Place sold out, and publishers are nibbling at a book-length version of the same project. After the two performances at Ars Nova, Braly and his director Hal Brooks might do further fine-tuning to make the show more attractive to potential producers for a commercial run. Then Braly’s fans will have to stay tuned for “Life in a Marital Institution” the book, the Off-Broadway play, the divorce? Probably not the divorce. James Braly is nothing if not committed.

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