Wednesday, May 19, 2010

That Face

Photos/Joan Marcus

In her fiery, angry youth, playwright Polly Stenham gives audiences--especially older ones--plenty of opportunities to check out of That Face. The play opens with Izzy (Betty Gilpin), a vain teenager who litters her speech with empty words like "honey" and "sweetie," turning an initiation prank into a savage beating, simply to save face with her colleague, Mia (Cristin Milioti). Mia's older brother, Henry (Christopher Abbott), wakes up to find his mother, Martha (the phenomenal Laila Robins) in his bed again. A hospital visit prompts sex, not sorrow or sympathy; characters are routinely treated as objects. And just because Hugh (Victor Slezak) abandoned his family at the first glimmer of craziness, that doesn't mean he won't use Henry and Mia as pawns against Martha.

Hugh, Izzy, and the hospitalized Alice come across as very slight characters, and their scenes often seem overwritten to compensate, but it would be a mistake to ignore That Face. Stenham was young enough when she wrote this--nineteen--to understand the pressing need for her teenage characters to establish their own voices, and bleak enough to sell the assumption that "all true things are just horrible." She was hopeful, too, that actual love might be enough to redeem even the worst depravities, and while that love might be unrecognizable in the terrifically deranged finale, she makes a powerful, powerful point. And though it's certainly less cheery than Next to Normal (which is part of my problem with that flimsy piece of theatrics), Sarah Benson's rich, actor-driven direction makes this feel like a far more honest--and frightening--glimpse at a family coping with mental illness.

You wonder why Mia is such a steely student, wearing baggy clothes and yet moving and speaking so sharply? It's because her screaming mother calls her "an interruption"; for the last five years, Mia has been forced to retreat to boarding schools, squat on the coaches of "friends" like Izzy, and to grow up entirely too fast (something Milioti's particularly good at playing). And how about Henry, who has been smothered by his mother's needful incompetence? He's doubly trapped: not just by a momma's boy's desire to be the man of the house and to fix things, but by a sort of Stockholm syndrome brought about by years of unconscious mental abuse. Like Mia, he's grown up too fast, and without any friends to balance him: as his mother's 24-7 caretaker, he's dropped out of school and lives a life nearly as closeted as hers. And lest we too-easily pin all the blame for this disaster on Martha, remember that she is crazy--and has gotten progressively worse; it's Hugh who has allowed the house to fall into disarray. (David Zinn's scenic depiction of it--a square, sharply raked slab--feels prison-like, with the detritus of their life serving as the bars.)

The early scenes demonstrate these individual deteriorations; the repetitive feel of these moments actually serves the mood, making things seem more familiar. (Get it?) But it's the final scene--which could be a mighty one-act on its own--that elevates That Face. Abbott's Henry is a many-layered pile of hurt: as his mother's soldier, his father's servant, his sister's protector, he's got nothing left for himself. He has pinned all of his hopes on saving his mother, and the thought that his five-year investment of love might not pay off has led him to this, a moment mixed with desperate sanity and years-in-the-making madness. Due to a laundry mishap, he's wearing one of his mother's dresses at this point, which only emphasizes his own lost personality. Pissing himself--which he does--is pretty much the only thing he can do, and he says as much, thanks to Stenham's angry, revelatory writing.

Robins, too, has elevated Martha: whereas before we've been gripped by her playful and violent shifts (at one point, jealous of a hickey on her son, she gives him one), we at last see the beneficent mother, a wounded woman struggling to find a way far enough out of the fog that she might save the son she truly--overwhelmingly--loves. Even Milioti, who has already more than shown Mia's toughness (and repressed tenderness), goes to a deeper place, both galvanized and paralyzed by these final revelations. The audience goes there with her, voyeurs who are uncomfortably seeing too much and yet (secretly) delightedly unable to turn away from That Face.

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