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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There's not much voting, you'll meet no Presidential candidates, and for all the characters we meet "red" and "blue" are colors and not ideologies. Nonetheless, Scarcity stakes an early claim to the title of the best political play of the 2008 campaign - and maybe the 2007-2008 theatre season.

Michael T. Weiss and Kristen Johnston
Photo by Doug Hamilton.

Lucy Thurber's probing drama is receiving only an adequate production at the Atlantic Theater Company under Jackson Gay's direction, but the subtleties and exigencies of living life on the brink burn brightly through their everyday surroundings. Centering on a family living just above the poverty line in western Massachusetts, Scarcity dissects and vivisects the concerns of the lower class and the upper crust that's always so certain it knows better.

Martha (Kristen Johnston), who works 50 hours a week at a dead-end job, is married to the alcoholic and unemployable Herb (Michael T. Weiss), much to the chagrin of local lawman Louie (Todd Weeks), who's long harbored a crush on Martha and frequently has to return a drunken Herb to her in handcuffs. Martha and Herb's children are the brilliant Billy (Jesse Eisenberg), who just started at a new high school for gifted students, and Rachel (Meredith Brandt), who wants to accelerate herself there immediately and skip some four grades in the process. Those goals might be attainable, however, with the help of first-time-out teacher Ellen (Maggie Kiley), who's taken an interest both in Billy's future and in Billy himself.

Miriam Shor, Todd Weeks, Michael T. Weiss, and Kristen Johnston
Photo by Doug Hamilton.

Yet this is no soap opera, in which easy relationships are examined with a tidy, numbing predictability. Self-esteem and patience, like money, are in lethally short supply, and no one is willing to waste what few moments they have left on things bereft of meaning. For Billy this means taking what he can while the taking is good, regardless of whom he has to leave behind. Rachel's obsession with things yet to be takes the form of a deck of tarot cards she wields with the threatening prowess of a switchblade, and results that are often as bloody. Louie sees no future without Martha; Louie's cast-aside wife Gloria (Miriam Shor) sees no future with her. Martha's lucky if she can see anything at all, and Herb only seems to have eyes for Rachel.

All the foresight and myopia converge in the young-old-money Ellen, whose condescending do-gooding - with the best of intentions and the worst of results - suavely underscores the tension of a nation in which no one wishes to be told how they must live. Progress is not for everyone; learning to cope with the inertia of existence is all that some can hope for. With very little fanfare, Thurber's play explores each of the characters tendencies toward motion or inaction, focusing with abrasive clarity on what they need to be happy - or just merely be. The only curse, which hovers above everyone in Scarcity, is not being able to live up to whatever your potential is.

This is made clear only in one scene, set in the wake of an explosive card night with Louie and Gloria, in which Martha tearfully contemplates the disintegration of her life as lived with Herb. Johnston progresses so gradually and so naturally from elation to despair in recollecting her faded beauty that she momentarily recalls Amanda Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie: the woman of promise who's faded into irrelevance. A few other isolated moments, related to Louie's decibel-heavy exclamations drawing on his sexual rage or Gloria's dissatisfaction with the life he's given her, suggest deeper explorations of these characters deceptively normal problems.

Otherwise, the performances tend to derive from stridency, skirting dangerously close to the realm of the Bundy clan from TV's Married With Children. But Thurber's group isn't made up of laughable losers - their plight is real, the children's need to escape from it for purposes of survival is genuine. In Gay's production, only Walt Spangler's cluttered tract-housing set reinforces the pressures toward conformity that alternately energize and enervate these people. Everything else serves as a form of commenting on them, including the lighting (by Jason Lyons) that employs enough flash-bulb effects to make you feel their life is the subject of a newspaper expose on the silent victims of President Bush's tax cuts.

But Martha, Herb, and the rest don't need to be explained with the theatrical equivalents of quotation marks. They speak for themselves, their pride (or shame) of place telling us all we need to know about who they are and where they are (or are not) going. Scarcity, left to its own devices, is a bracing and compelling portrait of Middle America in crisis. But too often, this production - like Ellen - reminds us exactly why the meddling of outsiders can be far more dangerous than the problems we bring on ourselves.

Through October 14
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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