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MTC’s THAT FACE receives a rave from the Wall Street Journal

THAT FACE recently opened at Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage I.  Below is the Wall Street Journal’s rave review of the play by Polly Stenham, directed by Sarah Benson.

A Commanding Debut 

By Terry Teachout
May 21, 2010

In 1959 a 19-year-old working-class high-school dropout named Shelagh Delaney wrote a play called “A Taste of Honey” that rang all the cherries on the slot machine of theatrical success: It was a hit in London and on Broadway, then was turned into a well-received film. Now Ms. Delaney has a successor. “That Face,” written by Polly Stenham when she, like Ms. Delaney, was 19, opened to hats-off reviews three seasons ago at London’s Royal Court Theatre, erstwhile home of the angry-young-men school of postwar British drama. Such plays, alas, rarely fulfill their transatlantic ballyhoo, as was recently demonstrated with a vengeance when Lucy Prebble’s “Enron” went belly-up on Broadway. I went to the New York premiere of “That Face” expecting to be similarly disappointed—but stayed to cheer. “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 overfamiliar 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. This is a play without villains, only well-meaning but grievously flawed people who have lost control of their lives and now are wreaking havoc on one another.

Prodigies who draw too soon on the well of experience are prone to run dry. Ms. Delaney never wrote anything worth remembering after “A Taste of Honey,” and the same thing could happen to the author of “That Face” if she doesn’t work hard to cultivate her natural gifts. Still, I have no doubt that Ms. Stenham’s first play is full of exhilaratingly high promise. All praise to the Manhattan Theatre Club for bringing it to New York.

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