City Paper is not for tourists
Every unhappy family is miserable in its own way, but few could be as perversely, incestuously adrift as the pitiful nuclear foursome at the center of That Face. British playwright Polly Stenham was only 19 when her Oedipal melodrama rocked the London stage three years ago. Newly imported to the Studio Theatre’s Secondstage in an efficient production directed by Rahaleh Nassri, it makes for an energetic, engrossingly lurid, intermissionless hour-and-a-half, even if Stenham’s willful determination to pile stain on top of shock eventually begins to feel kind of phony. Even so, there are some arresting sights to gawk at on this family’s road to hell. Colin Bills’ lights come up on a uniformed boarding school girl, the hooded, bound victim of some cruel but not (we’re soon assured) unusual hazing ritual. The image immediately puts you on edge, though the torments to come will be psychological, and the entire opening is something of a red herring. What sort of parents would pack off their kids to an environment like this?, you wonder. But not for long! The fallout from that botched initiation prank sends 15-year-old Mia (Dana Levanovsky, working hard to sustain the character’s wounded rage) home to her older brother and shipwrecked mother. As Martha, their mentally ill, pills-and booze-addled maelstrom of a materfamilias, Eva Wilhelm is more Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard than Alberta Watson from Spanking the Monkey, but either way, she’s a memorably ravenous parasite. A call from Mia’s school has dragged her broker dad onto a plane from Hong Kong, where he’s been with his mistress, shacked up and checked out. Papa’s homecoming is the last thing Mia’s brother Henry wants —he’s spent years protecting their mom, known to him, affectionately, as “Martha”—from being committed. But one at look at her now, he knows, and Dad will send in the orderlies, and not the private, pricey kind. That being left to the tender mercies of the National Health Service is a fate worse than incest is an idea that no one challenges here. The punk songs that rage over deft scene transitions (much abetted by Luciana Stecconi’s neatly modular set) impart an echo of the prickly energy of a lot of recent British drama and also of Studio’s earlier productions of Neil LaBute plays. Like so much of LaBute’s work, That Face seems almost falsely insistent on face-kicking you until the final curtain, even when the most dispiriting possible conclusion isn’t necessarily the one that seems to flow naturally from what has gone before. So it’s not Patrick Thomas Cragin’s fault that he can’t quite pull off Henry’s final dissolution—dextrous and committed, he’s ultimately more persuasive than Stenham’s script.