Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Family Troubles


That Face

Written by Polly Stenham

Directed by Sarah Benson

Starring Christopher Abbott, Maite Alina, Betty Gilpin, Cristin Milioti, Laila Robins, Victor Slezak

Performances through June 27, 2010

Manhattan Theater Club, Stage I

131 West 55th Street


Do we need another dramatization of the self-absorbed thrashings-about of affluent inbreds? Written by 19-year-old Polly Stenham, That Face begins as an elegantly nasty meditation on familial discord that's charted clinically; but Stenham uses her best cards early, and what begins as a gleeful satire soon turns sour and becomes more interested in “shock” for its own sake to diminishing returns until it limps to a tired finish.

Daughter Mia is kicked out of school for giving another student a near-fatal overdose of Valium; her older brother Henry has quit going to classes to take care of their mother Martha, whose mental unbalance has provoked an unusually close (read: near-incestuous) relationship with her son; and father Hugh, who left to begin anew with his second wife in Hong Kong, returns to try and straighten everyone and everything out, a fool's errand if there ever was one.

During its 90 minutes, That Face recycles the same ground of other plays about dysfunctional families, in particular those of Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams, whose famous climax to Streetcar Named Desire is cribbed by Stenham in her final scene. This wouldn’t matter if Stenham had created original and not merely idiosyncratic characters. Instead, there's studied nastiness (the opening “torture” scene involving the overdosed student) and “shocking” family intimacy (Henry and Martha are first seen in bed together, and later he wears her clothes and jewelry in a scene that even surprises Mia and Hugh, as if they had no clue about their closeness).

Under Sarah Benson’s assured direction, all of the performances are laser-sharp, from Cristin Milioti’s Mia and Victor Slezak’s Hugh to Christopher Abbott’s Henry and Laila Robins’ Martha. This forceful, focused group of actors goes a long way toward making That Face more palatable than it has any right to be.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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