May 19, 2010

Coming Face to Face With "That Face"

Over the years I’ve found there are several ways to gauge how an audience feels about a play.  One is the number of Playbills left behind when people leave at the end of the show. A Playbill is a keepsake, a tangible reminder of that evening’s performance. When people go home without one it often means they’re not all that interested in remembering what they’ve seen.

So make of it what you will that the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage 1 auditorium was littered with Playbills the night my friend Jesse and I saw That Face, young British playwright Polly Stenham’s musings about a dysfunctional family.  “Looks like the inside of a plane after a long flight,” I overheard one man saying to his wife as they surveyed all the programs left behind.

Now I grant you that the greyheads at that performance probably aren’t the target audience for this show.  Stenham was only 19 when she wrote That Face and just 21 when it was produced in London’s West End in 2008.  And this is definitely a young person’s play.  I mean for really young people, whose primary relationship struggles are with their parents, as opposed to cheating spouses or needling bosses or the sickle-bearing specter of imminent death, as are so many plays with an eye on attracting the AARP set. And that is refreshing.
But it’s also a young person’s play because the playwright, while precocious, is still immature.  Like many fledgling writers, Stenham oversamples works from those who have tread similar ground before her.  I spotted bits of Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams in her work.  And like many young people, her passions overflow and she tends to repeat her point over and over again.  The point nailed home here being that parents these days are so screwed up that their kids have to screw up their own lives to care for them.

That Face begins at a ritzy girl’s boarding school and then moves to the home of Mia, a girl who has committed a horrendous deed there and is facing expulsion from the place. But Mia's home is something of a horror too. Her businessman dad Hugh has abandoned the family and lives in Hong Kong with a younger woman.  Her divorced mother Martha is strung out on booze and drugs.  Her older brother Henry has dropped out of art school to become a fulltime caretaker, surrogate parent and maybe even the incestuous lover of their gorgon of a mum. It’s Henry’s face that seems to be the one alluded to in the self-consciously elliptical title.
I had been eager to see That Face because it got marvelous reviews in London. The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer called it “one of the most astonishing dramatic debuts I had seen in more than 30 years of reviewing.” While the Independent proclaimed it “a razor-sharp dissection of a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family that achieves a rare balance of raw emotion and knowing, black comedy.”  

The play was nominated for an Olivier and won awards from both the Evening Standard and London’s Critics Circle. Feature stories chronicled Stenham's upbringing, fashion sense and ambisexual dating habits (click here to read one in the Evening Standard.)
Only my fellow bloggers The West End Whingers demurred. “The Whingers just didn’t get what all the fuss has been about,” they wrote. “True, Stenham paints a shocking portrait of an dysfunctional family where children are forced to act like parents and parents behave selfishly but sadly the Whingers couldn’t quite suspend their disbelief sufficiently to be shocked.” (Click here to read their review.) 

According to the raves, the terrific British actress Lindsay Duncan found a way to make audiences feel for the mother.  But the MTC production is an entirely American affair, directed by Sarah Benson, the artistic director of Soho Rep who won kudos for  the brutal war drama Blasted, and starring an entirely new cast that, at least at a very early preview, seemed overwhelmed by the material.

Laila Robins, another terrific actress, was working hard to make the mom more than just a monster but her Martha still came off as shrill and totally unlikeable.  In fact, it was hard to feel for—or even believe in—any of the characters.  Instead, although I know you’re not supposed to assume that plays are autobiographical, I ended up feeling sorry for Stenham’s real-life mother, about whom her daughter seems to care for as little as I do this play.

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