Friday, June 4, 2010

Theater Review: That Face

90 Minutes of Dysfunctional Dysfunction
By Lauren Yarger
The most disturbing thing about Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of That Face playing Off-Broadway at New York City Center isn’t actually anything that happens in the play, though there’s more than plenty of worrying things to go around in this dysfunction fest.

What’s truly disturbing is that such a trip into abnormal family interaction should come from the tender mind of 19-year-old Polly Stenham (winner of britain's 2008 Critics Circle Award for Most Promising New Playwright.) Then again, no mind, young or old, should have to delve into the psyches of families such as this.

First we have the mother from hell -- and no dysfunction fest would be complete without one-- whose children for some reason constantly have to remember to call her Martha instead of Mommy when she’s sober enough to realize they are talking to her. Martha, I mean Mommy -- or do I mean Martha/Mommy (a really good Laila Robins who gives a full emotional arc) -- is disturbingly attached to/attracted to her son, Henry (Christopher Abbott), whose face she loves to gaze on and which is the only thing in the world that means anything to her.
Henry quits school to stay with her in their shabby, but once-noble flat (David Zinn, scenic and costume design) decorated with pinned up drawings he's learning from Martha' art lessons. He sleeps in her bed, dresses in her nighties (which comes in handy after she cuts up all his clothes in a jealous rage) and even drinks with her in the hopes that giving in to her bizarre demands might just coax some “normal” behavior out of her.

Meanwhile, daughter, Mia (Cristin Milioti), may be expelled from school for drugging, torturing and beating underclassman Alice (Maite Alina) in a hazing incident led by whacko friend Izzy (Betty Gilpin) who enjoys Mia’s discomfort when she shares her sexual escapades with Henry. It’s up to the family’s dad, Hugh (Victor Slezak), to leave his new wife and child in Asia and fly back to London to try to fix the problems of family number one.

The characters seem interesting at first, and we’re intrigued to find out why they all have ended up as messed up as they are, which is an indication of the playwright’s potential. Stenham never clues us in, however, and except for a lot of awkward situations with fingers pointing blame and a lot of yelling, we’re not sure why any of them do what they do (but we do understand Hugh's decision to get out of there). Not much happens in terms of a plot or development of the characters beyond the rough outline notes the author must have scribbled like “Streetcar/August Osage/Medea/Mommie Dearest cross type for the mother. The working title might have been “If I Write a Shocking Play About a Horribly Dysfunctional Family, I Might Have a Shot at the Pulitzer!” (Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to that. It might not have taken the Pulitzer, but this 2007 play has won a variety of dramatic awards in England.)

There is some dysfunction in the flat dialogue, as well. When they aren’t using the “F” word, the characters ask each other lots of series of boring questions, one of which goes like this:

“Is that it? Is that all?
“Sort of.”
“What do you mean, sort of?”

Henry spends a lot of time talking about who called on the phone, that his mother answered the phone, that his mother hung up the phone, that he should have answered the phone, wondering why someone didn’t call him on his cell phone, wondering why his father didn’t call on the phone. In the end, Mia also questions her father about whether he called her mother on the phone.

We never hear an actual phone conversation, or any other dialogue that might take the plot somewhere, however, so the characters don’t grow much. By the end of the play all we’re sure about is that “normal” Henry is just a sick as Mommy -- I mean Martha -- I mean Martha/Mommy -- and there‘s a pretty disturbing scene involving urination to prove it.

The performances, directed by Sarah Benson, actually are very well executed all around. They are emotional characters and the actors reach down deep to portray them -- we just don’t care much about them or understand why they are so whacked.

That Face plays through June 27 at Stage 1, NY City Center, 131 West 55th St., NYC. For tickets call 212-581-1212

Christians might also like to know:
 Language
 Lord’s name taken in vain
 Sex outside of marriage

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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