When Process Overwhelms Purpose

Stephanie Wright Thompson, Marc Bovino, Michael Dalto, Stacey Yen, and Joe Curnutte in The Mad Ones' “Miles for Mary,” directed by Lila Neugebauer, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons through February 18. | JEFFERSON WHITE AND THE MAD ONES

Upon entering the intimate Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, we are struck by Amy Rubin’s meticulously curated set of a Phys Ed teachers’ lounge. And it’s a very dumpy lounge at that.

The room is stuffed with filing cabinets, desks, a conference table, mismatched chairs, and, of course, the requisite plaques and trophies. There are windows, but they open up to a drab tiled hallway, not the outdoors. Judging by the desktop computer, phones and drip coffee maker, the time period is circa late 1980s. An unframed inspirational poster warns DON’T PANIC. We can almost smell the soiled, battered sports equipment crammed on the shelves.

This warts-and-all backdrop is perfect for “Miles for Mary,” created by the New York-based troupe The Mad Ones, about a well-meaning but acutely flawed committee planning its annual telethon at an Ohio high school. The fundraiser honors dear Mary, a student on the girls’ track team who died in a car wreck years before.

Group dynamics run amok in a savage comedy from The Mad Ones

In this blistering comedy of manners, group dynamics, and office politics, the staff is stone cold serious, doing its best to produce a successful event. There’s the veteran committee chair, Brenda (Amy Staats), who we first meet via speakerphone during a call with the group (she’s homebound recovering from an accident), offering measured criticism of her team’s efforts. Not everyone is pleased with the patronizing, touchy-feely management style of David (Michael Dalto), who leads when Brenda is not available.

The newcomer to the group, Julie (Stacey Yen), struggles to make her mark without stepping on toes. Her husband, Ken (Marc Bovino), who runs the AV department, has trouble keeping up with new technologies. His presentation on the new phone system, via overhead projector, crashes and burns. Rod (Joe Curnutte) and Sandra (Stephanie Wright Thompson) make feeble attempts to contribute yet still hunger for approbation.

The staff is so obsessed with the process — dutifully taking turns speaking, voting, making lists and charts, praising each other for offering up suggestions even if the idea sucks — that they lose sight of their purpose.

As the date of the telethon draws near, the meetings become more frantic and nerves grow more frayed, to rib-tickling effect. That DON’T PANIC poster goes unheeded.

With such farcical shenanigans, it would be tempting to label the play absurdist. Except that the details are so shrewdly observed and the dialogue (flecked with office jargon, psychobabble, and empty platitudes) so believable, it never crosses into Beckett/ Pinter terrain.

“Oh my God. That is a game-changer,” Sandra exclaims without the slightest hint of sarcasm when Ken announces he scored free office phones. Sure, they are three years old, but still an upgrade compared to their current system.

No doubt this authenticity is the result of the rigorous collaborative process employed by The Mad Ones. How fitting that a play about group dynamics is created by a team that prides itself on consensus.

In the spirit of this collaborative piece, it would be unfair to single out specific performers. The entire ensemble is outstanding — each actor has several moments to shine. The portrayals are honest and nuanced, and much of the play feels brilliantly improvised, though the script is followed to the letter.

The period-perfect costumes, by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, are as unkempt as the teachers’ lounge itself. They appear to come from a thrift store bargain bin, adding to the gritty realism.

“Miles for Mary,” directed with uncanny precision by Lila Neugebauer, is the first production of the Playwrights Horizons Redux Series. The piece, which originated at the Bushwick Starr, was so remarkable that the producers at Playwrights became obsessed with bringing it to a larger audience.

The play pulses with humanity. Like most engaging dramas, universal truths can be gleaned from the specificity. Who hasn’t endured the pitfalls of asserting oneself in an organized group setting, or tried to be politically correct while lying through their teeth, often at the expense of self-respect?

The genius of the incisive, engaging “Miles for Mary” isn’t simply that it makes us feel deeply for these earnest, defective souls. It’s that, on some level, it makes us feel deeply for ourselves, too.

MILES FOR MARY | Playwrights Horizons, Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. | Through Feb. 18: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.; Sun. at 7 p.m. | $40-$65 at phnyc.org or 212-279-4200 | 100 mins., no intermission