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May 21, 2010

TT: The right stuff

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I weigh in on the New York premiere of Polly Stenham's That Face, and I also report on the opening of another Chicago show, David Cromer's staging of A Streetcar Named Desire. Both reviews are flat-out raves. Here's an excerpt.

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"That Face" is a commanding piece of work that never puts a foot wrong. I watched it with the sense that I was present at the debut of an artist who might someday have even better things in her.

Outside of her age, Ms. Stenham has nothing in common with Ms. Delaney. She is a child of privilege, the daughter of a twice-divorced businessman who attended Eton and Cambridge, and "That Face," not at all surprisingly, is a tale of a grossly dysfunctional upper-middle-class family whose two children are choking on their own rage. I can't think of a less interesting subject on paper--nothing is more tiresome than the whiny angst of well-off adolescents--but Ms. Stenham has somehow contrived to portray the over-familiar plight of Henry and Mia (Christopher Abbott and Cristin Milioti) with a freshness and force that took me aback.

Part of this, I'm sure, is due to the galvanic performances of Ms. Milioti, who first caught my eye in the Irish Repertory Theatre's 2007 revival of "The Devil's Disciple," and the unfailingly excellent Laila Robins, who plays a drunken mother whose attachment to her son is too close for comfort. I'm just as sure that Sarah Benson, whose staging is shriekingly taut, has made the most of "That Face."

Yet the play is deserving of its production--and in a way that is itself unusual enough to be worthy of note, since nobody says anything eloquent or even especially memorable in "That Face." Instead of giving her principal characters high-flown speeches to speak, Ms. Stenham has put them at the center of a near-pure drama of situation and event, one in which the blame for their collective plight is distributed with a fair-mindedness that is rare in a very young writer....

STREETCAR%20PHOTO.jpgDavid Cromer, the foremost stage director of his generation, has outdone himself with Writers' Theatre's revelatory new production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." You'd think that all there is to say about so popular a play would have been said long ago, but it is Mr. Cromer's special gift to make old plays seem new without rendering them unrecognizable. His "Streetcar," like the productions of "Our Town," "The Glass Menagerie" and "Picnic" that came before it, strips the accumulated layers of convention and preconception off the surface of a classic and brings the viewer face to face with the play itself.

Mr. Cromer and his set designer, Collette Pollard, have reconfigured Writers Theatre's 108-seat performance space as a theater in the round and placed the two-room railroad flat of Stanley and Stella Kowalski (Matt Hawkins and Stacy Stoltz) in the center of the house, putting the members of audience as close to the action as it is possible to get. (I was seated eight feet from the Kowalskis' bed.) The intimacy of this setup makes you feel as though you're eavesdropping on "Streetcar" rather than merely watching it. It also makes it possible for the members of Mr. Cromer's ensemble cast to underplay a show that is almost always overplayed....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted May 21, 2010 12:00 AM

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