Lynne Meadow, the Artistic Director of the Manhattan Theatre Club, has brought a London scorcher of a play to its smaller New York venue, the City Center Stage I. The play is Polly Stenham’s That Face, and it roared into London’s Upstairs theatre at the Royal Court on Shakespeare’s birthday in 2007.
It created a stir, and moved on to the West End, where it continued its successful run. Now it’s crash landed here with an American cast playing its very hot family members Mother Martha, son Henry, daughter Mia, father Hugh, and Mia’s close friend Izzy. All of them, except father Hugh, need a good deal of calming down.
Father Hugh escaped this family when he defected and moved far away to marry an Asian lady, leaving Mother behind to cope with teen age Henry and Mia. To put it mildly, she hasn’t managed well, and is in such a mental state when we first meet her, that Henry has had to leave school just to look after her. Sister Mia is away at boarding school getting into serious trouble when she and girlfriend Dizzy almost kill fellow student Alice by virtually asphyxiating her in a particularly cruel initiation into a secret society at school. The initiation begins the play with a bang, and we move on to Life with Mother at home for most of the rest of the 90 minutes covered in this relentless exposure of one truly dysfunctional family.
Dad returns when summoned to try to sort things out, but he isn’t of much use, for he brings logic and reason to the situation and they don’t help much. The remarkable thing about this play is that it was written by a young lady who was 19 when she wrote it, and if it’s based on her own experiences at home, we can’t envy her the great success her first born has achieved, for its creation had to be bloody awful. If she created these people from scratch, then we can marvel at the complexity she brings to these very large characters. She’s already had a second success in London, and is currently working on a commission for a third play, so we should be hearing from her consistently in the future. In some respects she brings to mind the early starter Shelagh Delaney, who wrote A Taste of Honey when she was just 18.
Laila Robins, playing Mother (a role created by Lindsay Duncan in London) lets all the stops out in shaping her. Interesting that she should be named Martha, as was Edward Albee’s protagonist in Virginia Wolf, for the two are kissing cousins. In the Albee play Martha must relinquish her imaginary son, in this one she is slowly devouring him with very slightly hidden incestuous moves that seem to scare us more than they do Henry, who’s on the receiving end. When Mother is finally (and willingly) taken off to the mental health hospital, we are left with the two siblings reaching out to each other, and we have the feeling at least one of them will survive.
What can I say about all this? The production is impeccable, beautifully cast and directed by Sarah Benson. In addition to Ms. Robins’ honest and searing performance as Martha, her son Henry is beautifully played by Christopher Abbott with tremendous force and conviction. Sister Mia (Cristin Miloti) manages to tread the thin line between madness and strength with great control and she breathes fire and ice into this young woman as she turns into a young woman who appears to be conquering the demons within her. Betty Gilpin as Mia’s accomplice Izzy has all the surface grace of a well-to-do sycophant who will surely turn into one of those middle aged miserable ladies who lunch. Victor Slezak’s Hugh, rotter though he is, is the most welcome character for he does try to treat the mess he finds on his return to his family with common sense. He doesn’t deny having abandoned them all for a chance at his own happiness with another woman, but he is intolerant of the emotional chaos his departure seems to have caused.
I respect this play, and I greatly admire its production. But I must admit, spending an afternoon with this family is not something I’d like to do again in a hurry. Ms. Stenham has captured them, but I for one would have preferred it if she hadn’t put them on display, for I didn’t learn much from spending time with them. What I did learn was that Hugh and Martha should never have married, for I’m afraid they were doomed from the start.
That Face plays thru June 27 at the NY City Center, W. 55th (betwween 6th and 7th), NYC.