It's hard to separate The Mary Tyler Moore Show from Minneapolis—if you live in Minneapolis. The intro alone, with Mary by the lake, the Foshay Tower and the puny skyline in the background, and Mary turning on the world downtown while benumbed northerners look on with stoic skepticism, evoke memories of the mid-1970s (for those of us sentient at the time) with nearly as much evocative power as recollections of our own lives.
That '70s show: (back row) Matt Sciple, Patrick Coyle, Edwin Strout; (front row) Julie Madden, Stacia Rice, Mo Perry
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW Torch Theater at the Minneapolis Theater Garage through October 2
So our memories may well have assumed the soft-focus fuzz of what came beaming out of television sets then, and the adventures of the young Mary Richards rebound from those days in muted tones of optimism, charm, and humor (the synaptic equivalent of comfort food).
What, then, are we to make of a staged adaptation of three episodes of the show? The first question that comes to mind is inevitably: parody or homage? Director David Mann's cast has sensibly weighed in firmly in favor of the latter. It's the right choice. What emerges over these two hours is how pitch-perfect were these little teleplays, hyper-condensed snippets that evoke a larger, unknowable reality, very much of their time but with no whiff of staleness.
Stacia Rice is Mary, and she captures Moore's nervous, approval-seeking mixture of insecurity and pluckiness. Rice titters with Mary's nervous laughter, making brief forays into jousting with Lou Grant (Patrick Coyle) and Murray (Matt Sciple) before collapsing into tics of self-doubt. Rice also navigates three phases of Mary's character, from the amorphous single girl of the pilot episode to the existential nutcase of "Chuckles Bites the Dust."
Coyle is the actor here who strays furthest from his source, offering up Lou as a Crusty Old Bastard of a different stripe than Ed Asner's. But to say that the remaining performances are imitative is meant as a compliment. Edwin Strout launches himself into pompous buffoon Ted Baxter as though he has been waiting to play the role since watching his first episode, and Sciple absolutely nails Gavin MacLeod's acerbic timing, as Murray continually mocks the unaware Ted (let's just hope the karma of the role doesn't land Sciple next in a repertory production of The Love Boat).
Making the most of a handful of lines is Mo Perry as the sweetheart dullard Georgette (Perry also plays Rhoda in the pilot episode, all New Yawk brass). Perry delivers her lines in a syrupy coo, the tones of someone who may have recently survived a head injury. And making good use of quite a few lines indeed is Julie Madden as embattled Sue Ann Nivens, the aging sexpot cooking-show host who sees her rosy perch in danger from the next generation.
There's no effort here to send up any of this material, perhaps in part because it was gently sending itself up even in its day. The TV show's cast had an air of knowing caricature in their performances that surfaces here, and this show also captures the air of funky camaraderie that lent it warmth (in which Mary, Lou, and Murray represent a sort of Axis of Sensibility, with everyone else pretty much a rogue state).
If there's anything to complain about, it's that the switch between the two primary settings—Mary's apartment and the newsroom—presents a thorny dilemma. The scene changes are handled briskly, and Tamatha Miller's set elegantly splits the middle, though at the loss of the original TV newsroom's No Exit stagnation.
Overall, though, this TV-to-stage production reveals the strengths of both the original material and the actors performing it in the here and now. Memories of optimism and possibility might have gone hazy, but it's comforting to know that some of their districts were once well drawn, if not evergreen.