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A CurtainUp Review

Scarcity. . .as part of the Fall 2013 Thurber Hill Town Plays
When this played at the Atlantic, it showed Lucy Thurber's potential in full flower. As part of the Thurber Festival it's getting a new life as part of a Thurber marathon sponsored by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Axis Company at various downtown location. This new version will be at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre 38 Commerce Street. From 8/14/13; closing 9/28/13. Current production notes: Directed by Daniel Talbott. Cast: Featuring: Didi O’Connell, Natalie Gold, Izzy Hanson-Johnston, Will Pullen, Pamela Shaw, Michael Warner, Gordon Joseph Weiss. Raul Abrego (Set), Tristan Raines (Costume), Joel Moritz (Lighting), Janie Bullard (Sound)
You worry too much about me and Dad.— Martha
Somebody has to worry— 12-year-old Rachel.
Jesse Eisenberg in Scarcity
Jesse Eisenberg in Scarcity (Photo: Doug Hamilton)
We've reviewed Lucy Thurber's plays in the past six years. It's nice to report that the Atlantic Theater's world premiere of Scarcity comes closer to fulfilling the promise of Where We Were Born than her earliest and most recent plays (see links below)—that is, if you don't mind plays about unsavory, mostly unlikeable characters.

As in Where We Were Born, Thurber draws a disturbing yet compelling picture of contemporary life in the lower depths. The setting is a Western Massachussetts hill town where the divide between the well-to-do, well-educated upper classes and those mired in go-nowhere poverty is enormous.

Kristen Johnston  in Scarcity
Kristen Johnston in Scarcity (Photo: Doug Hamilton)
The title defines the shabby house in which the play unfolds, as well as to its occupants. The house has a scarcity of amenities and its adult occupants, Martha ( Kristen Johnston) and Herb (Michael T. Weiss), display a deplorable scarcity of parenting skills. It's not that Martha and Herb don't love their children, sixteen-year-old Billy (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger sister Rachel (Meredith Brandt), but hoplessness has taken its toll. Herb, who is apparently permanently unemployed save for occasional odd jobs, is a drunk whose behavior tends to be inappropriate even when he's sober. That leaves the family dependent on Martha's salary as a low level manager at a mall and, when food stamps run out, on the financial help of a cousin (Todd Weeks), a somewhat daffy cop who's in love with Martha.

Though smarter and more responsible than the boozy Herb, Martha is nevertheless uneducated and uncouth and still hooked on rough and tumble sex with him. The real adults in this family are the children, sixteen-year-old Billy and twelve-year-old Rachel. Both are bright enough for a future different that would rescue them from their miserable home lives. Billy already has one foot out the door of the ramshackle house through his enrollment in a gifted student program in one of the area's upscale schools, and he's promised to help his super smart, eerily insightful sister follow him into a better life. Unfortunately Billy is too intense and is having a diffiult time juggling his new school situation with life in his dysfunctional environment. When Miss Roberts (Maggie Kiley), a young teacher from a privileged background takes an interest in him, he looks to her as a means for making a complete break through a scholarship at a private boarding school.

Teachers as rescuers of talented but poor students have been standard fictional fare. A revival of Emlyn Williams' The Corn is Green proved to be a major hit at this past summer's Williamstown Theater Festival. But Miss Roberts is no Miss Moffat and this aspect of the play has a somewhat manufactured ring to it. At any rate, Thurber's play is too raw for a conventional Corn Is Green style happy ending. Pride can't change parental habits, and the play's single most sympathetic and if Billy makes his escape, it's likely that the play's smartest character, the wise beyond her years Rachel, will end up suffering for it.

As directed by Jackson Gay, and with the help of a fine creative team, the story plays out with affecting grittiness and the talented cast brings out the darker emotions and the spurts of black humor. Kristen Johnston's Martha reveals the wasted potential and residue of hope in this still beautiful woman for whom Billy represents an accomplishment of sorts. Michael T. Weiss's never quite sober Herb hints at the turn for evil some of his inappropriate comments to his young daughter might take. Todd Weeks and Miriam Shor as cousin Louie and his much put upon wife Gloria add big dose of daffyness and frustration to the mix.

Jesse Eisenberg makes Billy's struggle to straddle the world he lives in and the world to which he aspires palpable. There's one scene where he blows up at the schoolteacher who's in her own way as needy as he is (well played by Maggie Kiley) that illustrates Thurber at her most devastating. Even though she needs some work on her voice projection, Meredith Brandt makes a touching off-Broadway debut as the desperate little girl who is forced to be her parents' keeper as well as her brother's savior.

Thurber is an unflinching observer of the life style of an all too large underclass in a society that has always defined itself as classless. Except for young Rachel, the people she depicts are not likeable, but neither are they easily forgettable.

Killers and Other Family -2001
Stay - Spring 2007
Where We're Born- 2003

By Lucy Thurber'
Directed by Jackson Gay.
Cast: Kristen Johnston (Martha), Maggie Kiley (Ellen), Todd Weeks (Louie),, Meredith Brandt (Rachel), Jesse Eisenberg (Billy), Miriam Shor (Gloria), Michael T. Weiss (Herb).
Scenic design: Walt Spangler
Costume design : Ilona Somogyi
Lighting design: Jason Lyons
Sound design: Daniel Baker
Atlantic Theater Company 336 W. 20th Street.
From 8/29/07 to 10/14/07--extending to 10/21/07; opening 9/20/07.
Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at September 14th press preview.


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