Review by Tulis McCall
(18 May 2010)
This is stunning theatre. That Face is another British import with American actors, but this one works. Polly Stenhem has created a play that is equal parts Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and Theresa Rebeck and added her own unique touch. The result is something quite, quite smashing that will send you spinning out of the theatre.
Martha (Laila Robins) is the divorced mother of two teenagers, living. Martha is financially set, has way too much time on her hands, and is addicted to whatever pills or booze are within reach. Her son Henry (Christopher Abbot) has become more than her caretaker. The two are connected in nearly subterranean ways that reveal themselves throughout the evening. Her daughter Mia (Christin Milioti) is not the favored child. While her brother is glued to Martha’s side, Mia is finding her own ways to extract attention from her mother as well as her remarried father Hugh (Victor Slezak) who must travel all the way from a happy new marriage in Hong Kong to deal with matters at hand.
What is at hand is the unraveling of this family. Martha’s low point has been coming for a long time, and Henry has taken on the responsibility of keeping her decline a secret. He will take it personally, in more ways than one, if Martha is hauled off to a place where he cannot watch over her. With his father on the way to handle Mia’s private school pranks, the light is about to be switched on in the dark closet of these familial relations. It is not going to be pretty.
Ms. Stenham does not lead us directly down her chosen path. Nor does she use switchback dialogue. Instead she has a subtle touch that lets events sneak up on you unnoticed. When they arrive, these enormous events, they do not clobber you on the head – as well they could – they simply arrive C.O.D. and you have signed the acceptance slip without hesitation. And there you are with an 800 pound gorilla sitting comfortably in the living room of your frontal lobe.
In addition to the writing, this production is all of a piece. Sarah Benson guides this cast through this minefield of a story with the precision of a ballet choreographer. It is critical that these actors keep pace with the text, the story and each other. One false step and the entire production will go up in smoke. Happily, no such stumble appears, and the production rolls like a giant ball of molten metal to its conclusion.
When we reach the conclusion, and we are all on the boat with these fine actors, we discover that the boat was going in a direction we had not anticipated. This family dynamic is nearly radioactive, and we get to feel the heat. Ms. Stenham plotted the course, fed the fire, and kept the larder full for the journey. She dropped hints about where we were headed, but waits until the boat docks to let all the pieces fall into place.
That Face took me places I have never been. That’s what theatre is meant to do when it is shining its light. This production is positively glowing.