That Face, a play written by 19 year old Polly Stenham in 2007 that took London by storm has trickled into the NY City Center Stage 1 under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club. It is a surreal, voyeuristic journey, strangely directed by Sarah Benson, into the lives of a British family that is in the process of disintegrating before our eyes and letting us see every nightmarish nasty bit of nasty they are all capable of. Not a pretty picture.
Especially on stage. It’s another cluttered mess. Not unlike the one seen in Oliver Parker! Is there a pattern being set? Dysfunctional people living dysfunctional lives surrounded by more of a mess indicating such dysfunction? It seems so.
Designer David Zinn has pulled out all the stops to make it clear how bad things are in the bedroom of Martha (Laila Robins) and son Henry(Christopher Abbott) visually. The actors take it from there. Mother is a pill popping, possessive and perverse sot. She has an abnormal affection for her son who shares her bed and who for the past five years has dropped out of school to try to rehab her – without success.
His sister Mia (Cristin Milioti) has all but been ignored and she has been threatened with expulsion from her school for taunting and administering a tad too much valium to Alice (Maite Alina) along with her annoying friend Izzy (Betty Gilpin). This is where the play begins. Teen girls just having a bit of fun.
Ms. Stenham, herself a teenager when this play was written certainly knows her peers. Along with Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. Mum being a combination of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire with Cruella de Vil thrown in for good measure. It’s no wonder her husband Hugh (Victor Slezak) left them all to start up another brood in Hong Kong only to return when imminent disaster calls. Perhaps we’ll get to visit with those people in a future play. I can only imagine!
But back to That Face – which refers to the very good looking visage of Henry that Mum doesn’t ever want to leave or have him leave her. Won’t go into details except for the fact that he does appear wearing her negligee during the explosive family reunion in their “upside down world” – a direct quote that does not exaggerate.
Mr. Abbott handles his role magnificently. You feel for him in his mighty dilemma. He does love his mum just not in that way. And is torn. As are his clothes when mum finds out he has slept with another woman – girl – Izzy – and has ripped them to shreds.
Cristen Milioti is riveting as Mia. I had seen her in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter where she proved to be a sensitive and moving actress. Once again she totally succeeds.
That Face is another matter altogether. Through June 27th.
Photo: Joan Marcus