You’re meant to mourn those shrill, shallow hoydens swapping gossip as the lights come up—or you’re meant, eventually at least, to mourn the one dingbat who’s just back from Aruba, sun-blisters and all—so sit tight during the first few minutes of David Admji’s Stunning, until your sensibilities stop their indignant revolt and your ears adapt to the piercing, nasal strains of the lunching ladies’ native Brooklynese.
And until Adjmi gets around to introducing the evening’s disruptive element: Blanche, the oddly overeducated woman who soon arrives to keep house for sheltered, 16-year-old Lily, whose traditionalist parents have married her off to a business associate and whose own ambitions have never extended beyond next week’s manicure. Blanche is 40-something, academically inclined, and struggling, she says, with the mountain of student loans that comes with chasing an Ivy League Ph.D.—which explains the live-in housekeeping gig.
And she’s not, it emerges after the play gathers momentum and after its characters start to connect, quite what she initially seems.
Neither, thank God and the playwright, is Lily, who blossoms with exposure to the kind of social and intellectual sunlight that hasn’t been available from her coarse husband (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) and those rigidly conformist girlfriends from the opening scene. Speaking of: Abby Wood makes much of a tiny part as Lily’s even-younger friend Claudine, whose chief goals in life include early pregnancy and regular retail therapy; Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey proves more selfish and more malign as Lily’s older sister Shelly, a woman who’s both aware of the compromises they’re all making and more than content to live with them.
Lily hasn’t had enough experience to know from compromise, and it’s her fall from that innocence that the play is out to dramatize. She’s the child of a prosperous and fiercely insular enclave of Syrian Jews that’s flourished along Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway since the early 1900s—hat-tip to Miriam Weisberg’s helpful program notes, without which critics would have to do their own research—and she’s been raised not to question a world in which marriages are brokered, 12-year-olds meet their 30-something fiancés over ice cream (he’s buying), and anyone who bucks the system finds herself cast irretrievably out.
This is Adjmi’s home turf, apparently, so it’s vividly conjured (you wonder at what expense to him), rich with anecdote and attitude. Dan Conway conceives the posh home Lily manages as a sleek, modernist monument to her husband’s overweening ego; no one as young and frivolous as Lily would engineer so sterile an environment as this automated, antiseptic box, all tall mirrors and layered whites.
In so regimented and regulated a place, the arrival of a broad-minded, bootstrappy outsider like Blanche can be counted on to rock a few boats. It would be enough to fuel a relatively complicated play, the clash that inevitably comes when Blanche realizes just how limited Lily’s world has been, when she offers her employer the tools and the encouragement to push against those limits. More than enough, really: Adjmi makes her liberal, worldly, African-American and queer, too, as if the rest wouldn’t be shock enough to Lily’s system.
And then, ambitious man, Adjmi layers on a structural conceit. His Blanche, like Tennessee Williams’, is hiding an embarrassing secret or three, and Lily’s crude, overbearing husband crosses more than one Kowalski-ish line before the evening’s more than halfway done. (Note, though, that some lines run in the opposite direction: It’s a world of privilege this Blanche invades, a world where the only squalor is metaphysical and metaphorical.)
The trouble isn’t that all that cleverness is too much, necessarily; it’s that the deft character studies and the keen social commentary that shape the play initially get lost a bit in the game of comp-lit connect-the-dots that Adjmi’s second act eventually devolves into.
There are smaller issues, true: Adjmi doesn’t give Goodfriend much with which to earn the sympathy his Ike asks for, late in Act 2, and the actor hasn’t found anything between the lines to make the audience want to grant it. Likewise the noisy frat-boyishness of an early scene with Goodfriend and Clinton Brandhagen, who plays his brother-in-law and business partner: Nothing in the way Kauffman has staged it suggests what’s later revealed to be a relationship founded on family obligation and plagued by suspicion.
Dramaturgical and directorial rhythms prove problematic, too: There’s a reason Streetcar tracks swiftly toward “the kindness of strangers” after that climactic rape scene, and though Stunning turns on a different kind of violation, Adjmi’s attempt to split-focus the final moments, in which Blanche pays dearly for her overreaching and Lily faces a bitter choice between life without her community’s comforts and life within its limits, doesn’t quite come off.
Maybe it’s a question of pacing, what’s amiss as this otherwise intriguing, intelligent play stumbles through its unsatisfying denouement. Maybe it’s a question of emphasis. Or maybe it’s just that there’s too much going on: Tennessee Williams trusted audiences to weep for Stella, after all, but he gave Blanche the big exit.