10/22/2013 11:21 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: Lee's "Luce" No Loser; Adjmi's "Marie Antoinette" Loses Its Head

Several years before JC Lee's stinging play Luce, at the Claire Tow, begins, Amy (Marin Hinkle) and Peter (Neal Huff) adopted a child from the Congo whom they called Luce (Okieriete Onaodowan). What preceded their adoption decision isn't explained, but now 17 years later, they're what many would classify as white liberals with a college-bound son who's a model student, outstanding football team player and all-around class leader.
The problem that arises for them--and eventually more for Amy than Peter--is that Harriet (Sharon Washington), Luce's cultural studies teacher, doesn't know what to make of an inflammatory paper Luce has written arguing for civil disobedience. She's further concerned since, searching Luce's locker on the basis of her fear, she found a bag containing fireworks that have explosive properties.
During the intermissionless 90 minutes that follow the opening scene where Harriet explains her worries to Amy, Amy and Peter as well as Harriet attempt to establish whether Luce--whose name can, of course, hit the ear as "loose," as in cannon--is actually planning to carry off some sort of destructive action.
Needless to say, it would be spoiling Lee's intentions by supplying the answer to the question raised--a provisional answer is definitely provided--but it can't hurt to report that Luce is depicted as an intelligent, charismatic and loving lad. It's probably also fair to say Luce points out that his football pals feel free to use each other's lockers and that therefore any one of them--he has no idea who--could have placed the fireworks in his locker.
What's on new-to-New York City dramatist Lee's mind is where to draw the shadow-of-a-doubt line when the kinds of chances someone like Luce might no longer have in a still-predominantly-white society if a nefarious adolescent incident is on his record.
The quandary particularly gnaws at Amy, who loves her son--as does Peter but less unreservedly. She doesn't know how to resolve her encroaching doubts. She also knows that Harriet, with whom she's friendly, can be at odds with the school administration. If a situation arose where it was Luce's word against Harriet's, the decision wouldn't automatically go the teacher's way.
Taking place very much in a community that could be Almost-Anywhere U. S. A. today, Luce is a problem play. The play is about the problem but not problematic, although it might be possible to view it as the slightest bit schematic. Plus, it would be helpful to know more about the Amy-Peter marriage and the decision to adopt Luce--an adoption that appears to have had no drawbacks or setbacks until the dismaying essay comes to light.
In that regard, Luce is compactly constructed. Not unlike an argument on a complex matter, the givens are laid out and the possible responses are mooted. Lee doesn't make it a goal to include a solution to the problem, though. The question of what's right and wrong under the circumstances is left for audiences to decide.
May Adrales directs, taking care to establish the five characters as three-dimensional. She succeeds. The four prominent players allow their conflicting emotions to surface unguardedly throughout--or, if they're meant to be suppressing certain feelings, they also let those restraints register. (The fifth figure, played by Olivia Oguma, is a Luce classmate.)
Because most of Luce occurs in Harriet's classroom and at the family household, Timothy R. Mackabee has to create both. He's executed his task by making the downstage area serve for both locales with only minor adjustments. At the back of the stage, he's put a staircase and a bookcase that become visible when designer Tyler Micoleau turns his lights up behind the wall dividing downstage from upstage.
The effect is that a corridor and/or living room is revealed adjacent to Amy and Peter's kitchen. The dividing wall sometimes looks as if it sometimes holds three blackboards or sometimes three windows. It's a curious architectural amenity and only mentioned here because curious architectural amenities are not what patrons are supposed to be considering when larger issues are in play.
Maybe director Adrales and designer Mackabee have a metaphor in mind about psychological divides within families. If so, it's unnecessary. Lee's work is strong enough without it.
To date, David Adjmi's plays haven't impressed me as much as they have others. The last that came my way--3C, which appropriated the television series Three's Company to comment on the possible deleterious results of pop culture--was actively repellent, as far as I was concerned.
Marie Antoinette, at the Soho Rep, had me hoping, however, especially since Marin Ireland, who's always superlative, would be playing the eponymous guillotined queen.
My hopes rose further during the first scene--where against a tall white wall featuring only the Austrian-born monarch's name in white bas-relief letters--Ireland sits in a many-layered, strapless red gown, flanked by ladies-in-waiting Yolande de Polignac (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Therese de Lamballe (Jennifer Ikeda).
To the right of each is a table on which a tray of macarons rests--a three-tiered tray for Marie Antoinette, a two-tiered tray for the others. The macarons can't represent Ladurée pastries, since the company wasn't founded until 1862. All the same, they look as good as Ladurée's best. (Actually, they're Bisous Ciao Macarons.)
The queen, however, isn't feeling peckish. She only nibbles on one macaron and puts it aside, preferring to gossip with her companions in the combined tones of three Bronx housewives at the corner beauty parlor. Their dismissal of the French populace, which Marie hears is starving, comes off as hilarious. (You know, let 'em eat cake stuff.) So is everything else about which the BFFs palaver, including lowdown on Louis XVI's inability to ejaculate.
Having set a laff fest in motion and having Rachel Taichman direct it for maximum giggles and guffaws, Adjmi keeps the hilarity going for a few more scenes where, among other sillinesses, the King (Steven Rattazzi, playing more amusingly passive than he normally does) refuses to have the groin surgery needed. During this marital spat, Ireland gets one of her biggest responses, when, comically frustrated, she yells at Louis in fishmonger terms to "run France."
But it transpires, more's the pity, that Adjmi isn't after a send-up of the French Revolution and its causes. Instead, the macaron he puts on his dramatic table is a character study of Marie Antoinette from the height of her self-involved reign to her final moments. Although he asks the ubiquitous David Greenspan to play a sheep as Marie's Trianon-pasture Cassandra for some light-heartedness, he eventually gets all serious about the born-to-nobility woman, who, at 14, was sent to marry Louis and never knew anything about relating to the common folk. What's a poor little rich girl to do in those straits?
Just as MGM contrived it in 1938 when Norma Shearer played the ill-fated but habitually well-coiffed woman in that Marie Antoinette (co-star Robert Morley referred to the epic as "Marie en Toilette"), Adjmi is sympathetic to Marie's crisis, but why now?
Evidently, giving the lady a fair shake is the reason for this belated gander. Or maybe there's another reason that's eluding me. Still, nice work from all on hand, and that includes Karl Miller as Joseph, Will Pullen as the all-purpose Revolutionary, Chris Stack as Axel Fersen and Aimée Laurence as the Dauphin.
As for Ireland, she does no wrong, and lends as much credibility as could be wished to the anguishing last years Marie Antoinette never expected to experience. Ireland's final expressions come close to making the entire enterprise click.
Anka Lupes designed the quasi-18th-century clothes, and Amanda Miller designed the quasi-18th-century wigs. But wigged out, I wasn't.

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