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A CurtainUp Review
That Face

I was so happy when I was pregnant with you. It was the happiest time in my life. I felt clear. Everything felt clear. With you inside me. Everything fell away.—Martha, to the son to whom she has a smothering Oedipal attachment that makes this line open to snickering double entendre inerpretation, and whose face gives the play its title.
That Face
Victor Slezak and Laila Robbins
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Picture this scenario: Martha, a very attractive London matron who's never been very tightly wrapped, has gone over the edge since her affluent husband Hugh left her and her two kids to start a new family in Hong Kong. Since money is no problem, she lolls around a big bed most of the day, drinking and gobbling valiums like so many Godiva chocolates. The bed she lolls in is that of her 18-year-old son Henry who she's encouraged to drop out of prep school and study art under her tutelage. For Martha this insures that his face which she adores, is never out of her sight. For Henry it's his way of taking on the absent father's responsibility for taking care of Mommie Dearest. There's also a young daughter, Mia, who attends a posh boarding school which does little to discourage nasty hazing and so, to add inadvertent criminality to dysfunction, the teeny bopper overdoses a fellow student as part of a nasty hazing with pills stolen from Mom's stash.

Medea — oops, I mean Martha — hasn't killed her children, but she's more than likely done her bit to kill the marriage. She didn't shoot or stab or poison her children. But, for sure, she has murdered the chances for those children to lead normal lives, lives where children can count on parents to guide them through adolescence. Instead the rich but absent dad and the boozy and inappropriately son-loving mom have forced them to reverse roles and be the parents.

Does the above sum-up of the über-dysfunctional family situation at the center of That Face sound a bit like an update of Euripides' Medea? With all the liquor lubricating the action and dialogue, could Martha be named not just for the ancient Greek monster mother, but Edward Albee's monstrous Martha?

Well, as Mia helps herself to her mother's pills, so her creator, Polly Stenham, helped herself to characters and ideas from the best past and present playwrights, the latter also including Tennessee Williams. (I dare anyone not to recognize Blanche DuBois without the Streetcar in some of Martha's dialogue. Chalk it up to a bright student paying homage. Add the cheeky assumption that she's got enough talent to shine through the borrowing to make her debut play evoke a sense of those great playwrights being reborn and channeled through a new voice — that voice being appealingly publicity-worthy since it was that of a 19-year-old, whose own inside knowledge of growing up in a broken home and with her own boarding school memories recent enough to be fresh and authentic.

All this is not to belittle Ms. Stenham. She's managed to take the term dysfunctional to a new level and tell it from the sharp-eyed perspective of the rich upper middle class instead of the socially and economically disenfranchised. And it worked in that he countrymen and, most importantly, the British critics, swooned over That Face. They ate up her words and characters, ate up the Oedipal nuances and the blatantly Blanche Dubois lines, and annointed the still teen-aged scribe as their literary It Girl.

Naturally, the fact that That Face debuted with one of Britain's finest actresses, Lindsay Duncan, playing Martha, was another kickstarter for Stenham's career as a rising star and heir to the angry young playwright school dominated by men. And Ms. Stenham, now a ripe old 23, has been blessed again with the play's American production.

Martha is once again ideally cast with Laila Robbins who actually resembles Lindsay Duncan, but who needs no look-alike credentials as she's a seasoned and highly regarded actor. She does despair with devastating intensity. In the other showcase role, the tense, often frustrated but ever devoted Henry who's given up so much for the mother who means everything to him is played with fine nuance by Christopher Abbott.

Chrstin Milioti ably takes on sister Mia and Betty Gilpin is terrific as her nasty girl schoolmate Izzy, another troubled teen whose misguided hazing get them sent home from school and bring the absent Hugh back on scene to use his money and influence to do damage control both at Mia's school and on the troubled home front. Slezak is a fine actor but he doesn't have much to do except look pained and anxious to get back to his character's Hong Kong life. He's a less flamboyantly out to lunch parent, but no less a parent from hell.

With the help of set and costume designer David Zinn, Sarah Benson, who distinguished herself as the director of the several times extended haunting revival of Sarah Kane's Blasted (review) gives That Face the same strong support. A red curtained proscenium, allows the action to begin with the school hazing scene and then shift seamlessly to the spacious apartment that manages to look both spare and cluttered, and also accommodates brief shifts to a hospital room and a restaurant.

Despite signs of potential, I think Ms. Stenham has been pushed up the ladder of superstardom a bit too fast. Except for the very last image (which I'm not going to describe here) I was more engaged by the slick production than by these characters and found less to laugh about than the play's description as a black comedy calls for. Still, with more of the nurturing support she's been getting Stenham may indeed be a playwright you'll be glad you saw when she started out — albeit when her acclaimed new voice still needed to be toned down for less obvious shock tactics and referential business.

For my colleague Lizzie Loveridge's more all thumbs up review of That Face, go here. Lizzie also reviewed her follow up, Tusk, Tusk.

That Face by Polly Stenham
Directed by Sarah Benson
Cast: Christopher Abbott (Henry, Maîté Alina (Alice), Betty Gilpin (Izzy), Cristin Milioti (Mia), Laila Robins (Martha), Victor Slezak (Hugh)
Scenic & Costume Design: David Zinn
Lighting Design:Tyler Micoleau
Fight director: J. David Brimmer
Sound design: Matt Tierney
dialect Coach: Ben Furey
Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center - Stage I 131 West 55th Street
From 4/29/10; opening 5/18/10; closing 6/27/10.
Tuesday, 7PM, Wednesday & Saturday, 2PM & 8PM, Thursday - Friday, 8PM,Sunday, 2PM Tickets: $75 Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 5/15/10 press preview
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