September 22, 2007
"Scarcity" is Inadequate
There was a time, back in the '80s and early '90s, when blue collar life was a pervasive theme in American popular culture. TV shows like "Roseanne," "Grace Under Fire" and "Roc" drew huge audiences. Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp topped the music charts with albums like "Born in the U.S.A." and "American Fool". And the fiction of writers like Russell Banks and Bobbie Ann Mason captivated both readers and filmmakers. But, with very few exceptions, poor people have all but disappeared from the cultural landscape in recent years. That's why I was so excited about seeing Scarcity, Lucy Thurber's new play at the Atlantic Theater Company. And it's also why I was so disappointed when I saw it.
Scarcity tells the story of two intellectually precocious youngsters growing up in a poor and seriously dysfunctional home in rural Massachusetts and details what happens when one of them has a chance to leave. The pathologies on display run from alcoholism to pedophilia. But little of it rings true. I'm not sure if that's the fault of a script that needed a couple of more drafts or a director who needed a clearer vision. But it isn't the acting. The cast boasts recognizable names and faces from TV (Kristen Johnson, who won two Emmys for her role in the sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun", is the mom; and Michael T. Weiss, who played the lead in the cult adventure drama "The Pretender", is the dad) and the movies (Jesse Eisenberg, who made a splash in the indie film "The Squid and the Whale" is the son) but all of them are at home on stage. Especially Johnson who has a magnetic presence, the ability to glide from comedy to drama within just a few lines and one of the best voices in the business.
Eisenberg brings a restless energy to his role but I still felt he was miscast. The mother repeatedly refers to the son as her "beautiful boy." Eisenberg is good-looking but not beautiful. If he were, it might better explain why the son's female teacher seems sexually attracted to the boy. It might also have worked better if the teacher, referred to in the play as "ugly", had been played by an actor less pretty than Atlantic company member Maggie Kiley. Meredith Brandt, the young actor who is making her off-Broadway debut as the 11-year-old sister, does have some trouble projecting but her character is the emotional anchor of both the family and the play and she brings all the necessary weight to the role.
I went to the show with my friend Ellie, the former actress, who was more forgiving of the play than I was. But we ran into someone she knew —a frequent theatergoer seeing her second show of the week —who shrugged Scarcity off as just a "sitcom." I couldn't shrug it off. There are some 37 million people living in poverty in the U.S., almost 20% more than there were in 2000. Too many of the rest of us only see these people as the one-dimensional characters behaving badly on "The Jerry Springer Show". But as I watched Scarcity, I kept flashing on "Country Boys," the remarkable PBS documentary that followed three years in the lives of two boys growing up in poor rural homes like the one Scarcity purports to show. There were pathologies in the documentary (click here to learn more about it or, if you have a media player on your computer, to see it) but there was also an honesty and a respect for the complexities of these lives. Scarcity had a similar opportunity to portray these people who are too often dismissed as "white trash" (a term as odious as the n-word in my book) but it doesn't have enough true grit to show them as they really are.