review: that face

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That Face

by Polly Stenham
Directed by Sarah Benson
Starring Christopher Abbott, Maite Alina, Betty Gilpin, Cristin Milioti, Laila Robins, Victor Slezak
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I, 131 W 55th Street, NYC
production web site: http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/current-season/thatface/play.asp
Through June 27, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 9, 2010

The last time I was in this subterranean performance space I attended a press showing of Nightingale with Lynn Redgrave.  On that late October 2009 evening, from the first row, I watched and was moved by what turned out to be one of Ms. Redgrave’s final performances on any stage — a memory haiku about her mother, grandmother and a bit, a tiny bit about herself.  The current production of Polly Stenham‘s straightforward six character play That Face in this same space is also an examination of family, of mesmerizing monomania, of substance use and abuse, of coming to terms, of releasing pain.

Our play’s family constellation includes school girl daughter Mia (Cristin Milioti) who is expelled for drugging and harassing a schoolmate Alice (Maite Alina), led by domineering Izzy (Betty Gilpin), inspiring a sequence of events that reveals Mia’s unraveling family.  Brother Henry (Christopher Abbott), several years Mia’s junior, has dropped out of school under the radar of father Hugh (Victor Slezak) who has been living in another country with a new wife and young family.  Mia has been avoiding her own home for some months, hiding away at friend’s homes when not in school.  And at the core of the pain and dysfunction, but not its only cause, is mother Martha (marvelous Laila Robins) who has a drug problem and a pain problem, who holds adolescent son Henry just a bit too close (he sleeps in her bed and cleans up after her intoxicated excesses) and hides away in her now shabby upper class enclave.

How close is too close?  How can human beings treat each other?  How much pain is too much?  This family may, in the end, recover, member by member, painful event by painful event, each finding their way, taking on appropriate roles.  The hazed fellow student is in a coma but recovering … and not seen after the first several scenes of the play.  The character that may haunt the theatre goer most post curtain, in a ‘bad girls’/”mean girls’ kind of way is in fact Izzy, the malcontent, self-centered, unrepentant bad girl who leads Mia into trouble in school, leads Henry into her bed at Henry’s father’s London apartment, and wanders off to make sense of her own life and her own family.  And yet in all this there is hope.

Direction by Sarah Benson is efficient and spare.  Set and costume design by David Zinn is marvelous, setting Martha’s bed center stage and piled with a world asunder.  It is a wonder, this 90 minute romp.  The youthful playwright (19 at the time of originally crafting this script) has written all characters in balance, not focusing solely on her age mate character Mia.  I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 12, 2010)

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