Christopher Abbott, Mat Alina, Betty Gilpin, Cristin Milioti, Laila Robins, Victor Slezak
It’s hard to think of an equivalent in America to the story of British playwright Polly Stenham, who made her West End debut at the age of twenty-one. Written when Stenham was still in her teens, That Face, which is making its New York debut as part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s season, is full of the raw, messy stuff that makes entertaining plays.
The play begins with a boarding school torture scene. Young Mia and her elder classmate Izzy have tied up their classmate Alice as part of a ritual initiation, but their maniacal fun turns sour when Mia reveals that she’s slipped thirteen-year-old Alice four of the Valium tablets she’s knicked from her mother. Returning to London as the scandal breaks, Mia finds her mother Martha’s flat strewn with mess, the wall plastered with her brother Henry’s drawings.
While Mia’s been at school, Henry, a young artist who’s dropped out of school, has been taking care of his drunken, pill-popping mother through her ups and downs, slowly building up resentments toward the limits of his life, which has been consumed by his mother’s captivatingly repellent dependence on him.
Stenham, who wrote That Face while part of the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme, makes idiosyncratic use of language. Her quick-witted use of youthful London vernacular helps the play veer away from its occasionally melodramatic tendencies. As Martha calls her boy “Russian soldier,” curled up with him in their messy bed, it’s clear that Stenham has a gift for conjuring a certain almost Tennessee Williams-inflected atmosphere.
At the heart of the play is Laila Robins as boozy, blowsy Martha. In its London production, Lindsay Duncan played up the manic fun of Martha, but Robins infuses her with brittle, fragile pain. Which actress one prefers is a matter of taste, but both are well-considered interpretations. Robins is supported amply by sparky Cristin Milioti as daughter Mia and the handsome Christopher Abbott, who brings a sexy, dangerous edge to the role of Henry.
By the play’s end, Henry finds himself so entangled in his mother’s web that he’s barefooted, wearing her dress and jewelry. Martha, who’s put on a pair of trainers, is ready to fly away from her family, but something brings her to go to a clinic at the advice of her long-absent ex-husband Hugh, who’s flown into town from his second family in Hong Kong to sort out Mia’s mess.
The trouble with Stenham’s play comes in its characters’ motivations. We’re never quite sure what’s driven Martha to such depths. Similarly, we never quite know what climactic event makes all the play’s events worth watching. Though Mia’s crime sets the rest of the play in motion, Martha’s dishevelment seems more a perpetual state than a mounting problem, poised in the direction of self-destruction.
Nevertheless That Face is an assured playwriting debut. Its messy, manic charms far outweigh its weaknesses. In this assured production, director Sarah Benson, who so spectacularly took on Sarah Kane’s Blasted off-Broadway last year, brings out the play’s dark side.
Bolstered by Benson’s focused directorial flair (she’s aided by David Zinn’s compartmental scenic design) and Stenham’s sharp-witted script, That Face makes for thrilling viewing. Whatever its flaws, even better things are to be expected from Polly Stenham, a contemporary theatre writer to watch.