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That Face

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Laila Robins and Christopher Abbott.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Growing up, whether you are doing it for real or are already a physical adult who somehow skipped the maturation process, has never been easy. Still, the process has rarely been as difficult, demented, or deluded—at least in this country—as Polly Stenham paints it in her native England through her play That Face, which just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club. And if her play were in any way insightful or entertaining, perhaps the ugliness Stenham documents would feel like something other than what all of its characters pursue in one way or another: a desperate plea for attention.

Despite treating a topic that should need no explanation to anyone, That Face is absurd at best and grating at worst, a shining example of why acclaimed British plays do not automatically deserve New York berths. So impenetrable is its story about one English family struggling with—well, everything pretty much—that whether it's emotionally or socially accurate is as unimportant as it is indiscernible. Ostensibly, I suppose, it's intended as a razor-edged critique of the British class system and the expectations it imposes on people of every age. But you could just as easily pick any other subject (sexual confusion, psychological disorders, the creation of drag queens) out of a hat and still be right. As a piece of writing, it offers that much latitude —and almost nothing else.

The plot, such as it is, concerns disintegration of all four limbs of this family's body. Daughter Mia (Cristin Milioti) has been suspended from school for her participation in a hazing prank that left one girl on the brink of death and with bruises disfiguring her face. Martha (Laila Robins), the mother, lives alone with dropout son Henry (Christopher Abbott) and has, um, taken quite a fancy to him. (They share a bed and when necessary—which is oddly often—a wardrobe.) Responsible for splitting them all up is dad Hugh (Victor Slezak), whose constant gallivanting about Asia with his new squeeze has left him completely out of the loop about everything back in the U.K., though when he hears about his favored Mia's school problems, he's quick to hop on a flight and return.

Then... Well, part of the problem is that there is no "then." With the exception of Henry's exploratory fling with Mia's friend and coconspirator Izzy (Betty Gilpin), which of course freaks out touchy-feely Martha, nothing happens to ignite the passions or angers of these people. Engagement with their troubles, then, is entirely dependent on how much you can identify with their cancerous need for each other and their willingness (one might even say excitement) to destroy each other's lives to fulfill their own aspirations and maintain some appearance of propriety. The play's acclaim across the pond (it won an Evening Standard award for Best Play and was nominated for an Olivier) suggests British theatregoers' mindsets are in tune with the play's caustic, kinky sensibilities in these areas.

But universal it assuredly is not. Unlike plays with similar overarching themes—Long Day's Journey Into Night, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, half of the extant canon of Greek tragedy—it never transcends from dealing with "these people" to dealing with everyone, in part because it seldom takes its belief in itself seriously. The first scene is an extended presentation of just how Mia and Izzy tortured Alice (Maïté Alina), useless information given the exposition to come. Following this is an endless pillow talk scene between Martha and Henry, which is supposedly about the buffer of pain that prevents them from truly communicating with each other, but features enough silently disconnected keening to make Robins look like she's auditioning as permanent understudy to Bill Irwin.

What compels anyone is of no apparent interest. Mia seems goody-goody enough that one can't justify her terrible behavior toward Alice. For a young man who's often literally imprisoned in women's clothes, Henry is remarkably well-adjusted and ready to jump into bed with the nearest girl at the earliest opportunity (though whether it's merely to spite Martha, who can say?). Callous as Hugh is painted, that he's willing to set aside his entire life to return to London to straighten out things with his family prevents him from being the villain everyone so desperately wants to convince us he is. And whether Martha's bizarre behavior—she cuts up all of Henry's clothes at one point, and forgets a major fact every other scene or so—is a side-effect of her abandonment or some more hidden internal defect is neither addressed nor even pondered in any real way.

Perhaps the failure of any character to appear even marginally human is the fault of across-the-board miscasting: All these performers register here as far too together to suffice as people ready to rip themselves apart at the seams, with Robins particularly unbelievable as a woman without complete grasp of her horrific actions and Slezak sympathetic to the point of distraction in a role that doesn't want such depth. Or maybe it's the director, Sarah Benson, who helmed last year's celebrated revival of Sarah Kane's Blasted and seems to want to apply the same blistering sensibility to a show that would probably benefit from a more probing, less abrasive touch.

Or, more likely, perhaps it's both, grouped with abstruse writing that behaves as if it's saying a lot but in truth says very little. If there are any legitimate life lessons to be gleaned from these people's travails, unearthing them in this style would require more than the 90-minute running time it's been allotted and additional definition to characters who are, at best half-formed. As it is, because That Face does begin by showing Alice, wrapped in a mask, being forced into a chair and repeatedly slapped around before she's put to sleep, at least there's someone onstage you can relate to.

That Face
Through June 22
New York City Center —Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center

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