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.
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.
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.