Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is It Comedy?

If there is one lesson to be learned from That Face, it is never to bill a show that deals with an Oedipal relationship and torture, among other things, as a comedy. At the talkback I attended after the show, many audience members felt misled by the mailers describing the show as such (so much so, that they kept bringing it up, even after it had already been discussed). The marketing department might think about calling it a dark comedy, but even that might be a stretch, since there was little laughter at the performance I attended (from what I've heard, it played more like a comedy in England).

That Face, now open through June 27, comes to MTC Stage 1 at City Center from a run at The Royal Court in London. Polly Stenham, who wrote the play at the age of 19, is lucky to receive a strong production directed by Sarah Benson and featuring an excellent cast. Though she shows promise, she borrows too heavily from Tennessee Williams.

The show begins with two schoolgirls torturing a classmate after one of them, Mia (Cristin Milioti), gave her an overdose of Valium. The girls are suspended, forcing Mia's father, Hugh (Victor Slezak), to return from Hong Kong to speak to the school on her behalf. Meanwhile, her brother, Henry (Christopher Abbott), looks after their crazy mother, Martha (Laila Robins). The bulk of the play deals with the disturbing codependent relationship between mother and son. Though the writing is often absorbing, Stenham doesn't take this familiar scenario to new places, and I'm not convinced there was a compelling need for this play to be produced.

But since MTC did produce That Face, at least they've brought together a fine ensemble. Milioti manages to make Mia the most likable character, even after the horrible act she commits. Robins is appropriately unnerving. I've seen Abbott in a handful of shows and I keep saying this--keep an eye out for him. He's going to be big. If you're looking to see some fine performances, then by all means, check out That Face--just don't expect a comedy.

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