Theater Review: That Face

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That Face
by Polly Stenham

Minutes before one particular Saturday afternoon matinee performance, a grey-haired woman collided with the corner of the stage on her way to her seat, sustaining bloody gashes on both shins.  As she sat on the edge of the stage, others gathered around her, offering whatever assistance they could until the police and EMS workers arrived  to tend to her wounds.  When they wheeled her out, the audience applauded.

Then the curtain went up, revealing two boarding school girls tormenting a third they had bound to a chair.  The audience entered an entirely different reality, one turned upside down by a mother’s alcoholism and prescription pill addiction, where family members fight for their own survival in ways that seem perfectly normal to them but  bizarre to outsiders.

In a New York Times interview, Polly Stenham, who wrote That Face at 19, expressed her interest in “…seeing how things work when authority goes to bed, and natural order is established…in extreme situations when rules are off, and who wins, and who doesn’t win.”  In the unsupervised privacy of their dorms, Izzy and her accomplice Mia could freely act out their sadistic impulses in their hazing of 13-year-old Alice.

Mia, in an attempt to make life easier for Izzy, had slipped Alice close to 50 milligrams of Valium pilfered from her mother’s stash, a dosage ten times the standard for an adult—more than enough to knock out a young teenager.  The scheduled initiation continues as planned, Alice ends up hospitalized and both girls face expulsion.

The action then shifts to Martha’s bedroom, which exists in a state of suspended authority where boundaries have long ago dissolved.  A woman wakes up in bed while a man remains asleep beside her.  Clutter decorates the space, pictures are tacked haphazardly to the wall, and a wardrobe closet sports a large towel hanging down its front.

The woman lights a cigarette, wakes the man and attempts to secure his forgiveness for some unspecified behavior of the previous night, promising it won’t happen again.  He questions her about a hangover and calls her Martha.  Later, they are visited by a young woman, much to Martha’s annoyance.

As the story unfolds, the audience learns that Martha is mother to the man who shared her bed.  He is 18-year-old Henry, college dropout, aspiring artist and Martha’s caretaker for the previous five years.  The young woman that Martha complains always interrupts them is Henry’s sister, the Mia from the hazing scene.  A father, Hugh, is on his way from Singapore to resolve the situation, having been contacted by someone at the school.  Apparently when Martha had been called, she got nasty and hung up.

These classic family dynamics include an incestuous mother who cuts up her son’s clothing when he fails to return home one night, an absent businessman father who has remarried a younger woman and begun a second family overseas, an almost-adult son who never stops trying to keep his mother from drinking, and a younger adolescent daughter, aligned with her father, who has removed herself from the home front but desperately tries to rescue her brother.

The 90 minutes allotted to developing both plot and characters could have been used to better effect.  Henry, especially, lacked dimension.  His role in the family system must surely generate more inner conflict than was apparent.  The playwright invested Henry with far more emotional energy in her dramatization of his attachment to Martha than in his attempt at separation and the anger that went with it.  Perhaps Stenham lacked access to a model for the Henry role.

On the other hand, the mother seemed observed directly from life.  In the same New York Times interview, Stenham spoke freely about her businessman father with whom she lived (along with her younger sister) after her parents divorced during her early teen years.  When asked about her mother’s being a model for Martha, she denied any autobiographical content, insisting Martha is “…an archetypal British woman, women that my friends and I know well” who is wealthy and looks good enough to escape scrutiny for behavior associated with bipolar disorder.  Nothing in the play suggested Martha was bipolar but even if she was, there would be no way to tell while she was still  abusing alcohol and Valium.

In the end, when his father comes to take Martha away for treatment, Henry is revealed as the tragic hero.  Because he cannot accept defeat after “all the blood” he’s “taken from his heart,” he resists letting someone else take over where he has failed.  His hubris drives him to scream hysterically at Martha, “You piss on me and all I’ve done.” He begs her for another chance, ”so I would know I helped you.”

That Face

New York City Center, Stage I
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019