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A CurtainUp Review

When I come back to this, this. . .giant ashtray of a city, all I want to do is go back. Away from civilization. Go back and sift, and dig. — Vivian, the archeologist, explaining how for all the loneliness of her time in the field, she feels uncomfortable in her city home and among people.
Lisa Emery in Lucy
Lisa Emery as Vivian in Lucy (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
This year's collaboration by EST and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation focuses on autism which afflicts 1 in 150 children and which, to date, has eluded a definite explanation of its cause or a cure. Damien Atkins has writting a gripping though flawed drama about a girl who besides being severely autistic is a child of divorce.

Like many plays with an educational mission, Lucy tries to cover too many bases so that the genuinely interesting situation Atkins has set up is trumped by too much information about how to deal with autistic children and the various theories pertaining to autism's cause. It also ends up veering towards a less than satifying melodramatic and ambiguous climax.

The play nevertheless has enough strengths to make it worth seeing. Besides dramatizing a scientific dilemma to which more attention should be paid with considerable warmth, this EST production is blessed with a gifted cast whose performances pack a powerful emotional punch.

Lucy DeVito (yes, she is Danny DeVito's daughter!) is incredibly touching as the severely dysfunctional thirteen-year-old of the title. She handles the difficult dual personalities the playwright has assigned to her with sensitivity and conviction: The painful to watch autistic Lucy — untouchable, full of anti-social ticks and often out of control; and the narrating Lucy who is able to quite poetically express the thoughts trapped inside her troubled psyche.

Lisa Emery, an actress whose resume is studded with memorable comic as well as dramatic performances, is amazingly complex and watchable as Vivian, Lucy's initially reluctant mother. The other characters are all well played—Lisa's ex-husband Gavin (Scott Sowers), her assistant Julia (Keira Naughton) and Lucy's therapist Morris (Christopher Duva). However, they are basically there as devices to make us see why Vivian, a successful archaeologist who's unsuccessful in terms of forming relationships with other people, has been absent from her daughter's life.

Gavin lays the groundwork for Vivian's first long-term connection with Lucy by asking her to take over her care for a year so that she can attend a school near Vivian's home that might help her as well as to give him a chance to have some time alone with the woman he plans to marry. Julia and Morris are there primarily as viewers to the increasingly alarming evidence of the disturbing effect her deepening relationship with Lucy has on Vivian.. Thus, it's Emery's Vivian who is the linchpin that makes this a compelling story of mother-daughter bonding and also gives voice to Atkins' unusual ideas on autism as part of evolution and civilized society.

The play begins with Gavin's tracking down Vivian to ask her to give him a break from being Lucy's chief caretaker, as he's been since Vivian abandoned both him and their infant. The playwright provides just enough background to fill us in on the failed marriage, her success which has enabled her to support his caretaking financially, and to hint at his lingering feelings for her — and at the something inside her that made her stay in touch with occasional visits and now overcome strong misgivings to agree to Gavin's request. From there it's on to Vivian's home and several scenes with Julia and Morris that indicate that they are better able to handle Lucy than Vivian is. The gradual rapport between mother and daughter is handled most effectively. However, when Vivian's search for a new archeological project and efforts to deal with Lucy merge, the story derails with too many threads tangled together..

There's one especially revealing scene in which we have more than a hint that Vivian has many of the traits of autism but in a more controlled way. This reminded me of Temple Grandin, a doctor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, the most well-known and accomplished adult with autism in the world. Her book Emergence: Labeled Autistic (also made into a TV documentary) was an epiphany for autism sufferers and their families. It's too bad that Lucy, while interesting and beautifully acted and imaginatively staged, leaves us more puzzled and confused than in any way uplifted.

By Damien Atkins
Directed by William Carden
Cast: Lisa Emery (Vivian), Lucy DeVito (Lucy), Christopher Duva (Morris), Keira Naughton (Julia), Scott Sowers (Gavin).
Scenic Design: Ryan Elliot Kravetz
Costume Design: Suzanne Chesney
Lighting Design: Chris Dallos
Sound Design: David MargolinLawson
Ensemble Studio Theatre with Alfred P Sloan Foundation, 549 West 52nd Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues. 212/352-3101.
From 10/24/07; opening 11/01/07; Closing 11/18/07.
Tickets are $20 during previews, then $30, with Senior and Student tickets $15 for all performances
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7PM, Friday and Saturday at 8PM with matinees Saturday at 2PM and Sunday at 3PM.
Reviewed November 3 by Elyse Sommer


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