First Nighter: Polly Stenham's That Face Hard to Face

06/15/2010 11:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The cost of putting a literal mess on a local stage was the focus of an unusual New York Times chart recently. One of the four plays included was Polly Stenham's That Face, written when the playwright was 19. The estimated outlay for slinging books, clothes and detritus on David Zinn's set -- primarily an unkempt bedroom -- was $85,000 for the set and $20,000 for the props.

What remained unreported was the cost of the entire production, which is the honest-to-goodness real mess currently clogging the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage 1. It's more or less understandable that a young woman in late adolescence would throw what amounts to an irate daughter's tantrum in public. (At 19, could Stenham, now 22, still be called a girl without angering feminists?) Indeed, a practically honored tradition of growing up is a child's right to rebel harmfully against her mother -- or in Stenham's case, perhaps at someone else's mother about whom she knows.

(You gotta hope she doesn't know too many mothers like the one in her play).

More puzzling than Stenham's imagining the opus, though, is the generally favorable -- even rapturous -- reception the 90-minute hissy-fit has received from critics in England initially and now here. The website, where first-night reviews are accorded numbers and a grade from A to F is determined, assigns That Face a B.

Yes, a B!:

About most works of hoped-for art, it's generally conceded that various opinions are reasonable, but there are rare instances where there's no leeway for opinion but only cold fact. You'd think there'd be agreement on That Face being one of the latter.

The mother, Martha (Laila Robins), in That Face isn't actually seen face front or from any angle right off. Daughter Mia (Cristin Milioti) is spotted with sorority sister Izzy (Betty Gilpin) in an initiation rite tormenting hooded pledge Alice (Maité Alina), who suddenly flops over as a result of a Valium overdose. That's when the downstage panels part and Martha is revealed in bed with son Henry (Christopher Abbott) after an apparent habitual sexual tussle. Henry must pull himself together -- an impossible task as made clear before denouement -- to deal with the imminent arrival of absent father Hugh (Victor Slezak), who's left his girlfriend in Hong Kong to return home and deal with Mia's expulsion from school for her part in the Valium incident.

What follows is a series of encounters in which blood -- and out-for-blood -- relatives Martha, Henry and Mia attack each other in several unpleasant ways meant to be shocking but are only tiresome and, ultimately, ludicrous. Martha even attacks Henry's clothes, the remains of which he discovers hidden under Martha's tousled incestuous sheets.

During the rest of the bottom-feeding action, audience members given to guessing what horrors will be eventually revealed are right in suspecting Henry is homosexual. He says he is but then takes it back. (To wound raddled bed partner Martha, he boasts he's spent a night with the predatory Izzy.) Show-wise ticket buyers are also correct in supposing that returning feet-on-the-ground dad Hugh -- smart to have escaped this nest of squirming vipers -- will stay rational for only a short time before Stenham also undermines his stability.

Stenham writes as if she's completely unaware that Noel Coward earned his reputation when at 25 (practically an old man by these standards) he wrote and appeared on London and then New York stages in The Vortex, about a drug-ridden Oedipal liaison. Perhaps at her young age, Stenham did know nothing about the 86-year old predecessor, which was considered shocking in 1924 but has dated severely and is rarely revived now. (Well, Michael Grandage did resuscitate it at the Donmar Warehouse recently to little acclaim.)

But others older and more informed in dramatic literature must have recognized this (conscious or unconscious) rip-off and might have known better than to perpetrate it. On the other hand, given the numerous awards tossed in the direction of the producers, cast and directors in London, perhaps they all know better than this appalled reviewer.

Handed Stenham's outlandish manuscript, helmer Sarah Benson and ensemble don't have much choice but to fling themselves into it body and soul -- mostly body. The result is a clutch of over-the-top performances that'll get them other assignments, The already established Robins, slinking around in Zinn's Champagne-hued negligee and clinging to Abbott -- who clings relentlessly back -- will surely further her reputation as game for all challenges. J. David Brimmer, credited as fight director, deserves kudos for his abundant handiwork.

Incidentally, the Times article doesn't include the cost of repairs for scenery-chewing, but it must be exorbitant.