Polly Stenham’s play, That Face, has all sorts of tawdry things happening. A young, fair-faced lad named Henry has been forced into the caregiver role of his emotionally manipulative and sexually abusive alcoholic mother, Martha. His ostracized sister, Mia, avoids going home from boarding school for obvious reasons, and rarely keeps out of trouble. However, things have recently gotten out of hand — Mia’s nearly killed a younger classmate due to a prank gone wrong, Martha may have hit bottom, and Henry is wearing his mother’s dresses. In swoops their estranged father, Hugh, to pick up the pieces, but things are much more fragmented than he ever imagined.
The premise is promising, but the execution is so clichéd, so melodramatic, so predictable, it feels like the thing was written by a computer program set at “Xtra Albee plus a touch of Tennessee Williams.”
Now, it wasn’t until after I saw Redtwist’s production that I learned Stenham was only 19 when she wrote the play. That explains a lot: she’s clearly a gifted writer, but That Face feels like a dutifully drafted assignment rather than compelling drama. Rarely was I drawn into this family’s crisis, despite some good acting and solid direction (by Redtwist artistic director Michael Colucci).
A series of shocking episodes does not translate to intensity if you aren’t engaged in the characters and/or their situation. In addition, the stakes aren’t very high: if Martha doesn’t clean up her act, she may be forced into a rehabilitation center of sorts by Henry. Well: good!
While the cast is uniformly good, I must give particular kudos to Jacqueline Grandt, who plays manipulative matriarch Martha with slurred British accent, while also serving double-duty as the working class waitress in Redtwist’s Bug (read my review here) which is playing in rep with That Face. But while her Martha may be convincingly boozy, Grandt’s understated performance makes it hard to see why everyone is so intoxicated by her — including her tragically devoted son.
“That Face” plays through August 14. More info here >