Mentally ill and unfit parents are nothing new to the canon of dramatic literature. Eugene O’Neill, Stephen Sondheim and Tennessee Williams are just a few of the countless dramatists who immortalized their family members in their dramatic works. Polly Stenham’s That Face , currently in performances at the City Center, is the latest play to bring Mother to the stage in all of her glory and failure.
Written by Stenham when she was only 19, That Face created quite a stir when it premiered in London a few years ago. While the audiences of London received the play warmly, showering Stenham with awards and accolades, the notoriously neurotic audiences of New York may respond differently to such a stark portrayal of mental illness and absentee parenting. That Face is an impressive work by an author so young, and the accomplished cast brings out the best in the script, but there are a few bumps in this already rocky terrain of dramatizing mental illness and the widespread damage it can cause to a family.
The play opens with a scene at an English boarding school, where Mia (Cristin Milioti) and her friend Izzy (Betty Gilpin) are putting a fellow classmate through a frightening initiation ritual that goes horribly wrong after Mia gives the classmate too much of the Valium she stole from her mother. Threatening Mia with expulsion, the school calls her estranged father who hops on a plane in Hong Kong, where he lives with his new wife and child. Mia’s older brother Henry (Christopher Abbott) and her mother Martha (Lalia Robins) are less than thrilled to either this news.
It is clear from the first scene of Henry and Martha, lying together in one bed, that their relationship is more than slightly Oedipal. The frightening co-dependency of the two is truly disturbing to witness. When Henry does not come home one night, Martha shreds his clothing with scissors. After learning that he lost his virginity to a classmate of Mia’s, she bites his neck in order to leave her own love mark on him. She hardly pays Mia any attention and the little she does give is scornful. A talented young actress, Milioti gives an impressive portrayal of the pain this causes her.
It is clear Martha should be institutionalized, but whether or not she will is a different story. When the children’s father, played solidly, if blandly, by Victor Slezak, appears, the delicate balance Henry had worked so hard to try to establish collapses around him. Abbott is especially impressive in the role of Henry as he attempts to hang onto his sanity and his mother, and his chemistry with Robins is noteworthy, but his dramatic turn in the final scene is over the top and a bit too hysterical. As Martha, Robins gives a wonderfully understated performance and resists all opportunities to become overwrought. Her anger is believable, as is her sadness, especially in her final moments with her son.
The buildup to this moment is impressive and well-paced, but the play’s final scene drags on for much too long, with the dialogue becoming repetitive even as its volume increases substantially. Henry, broken beyond repair and dressed in his mother’s lingerie, urinating himself, should be a heartbreaking figure to witness. Instead, the scene is best described as uncomfortable. And the final departure of Martha is quite reminiscent of Blanche DuBois’ famous exist scene in A Streetcar Named Desire but not nearly as poignant.
It’s not often that I wish a play had been longer, but some background information about the family would be useful to fully appreciate Martha’s illness and her relationship with Henry. Regardless, That Face is an interesting and entertaining show and now that Mother is onstage, I am curious as to who Stenham will write about next.