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That Face

Laila Robins, Cristin Milioti, and Christopher Abbott give stunning performances in Polly Stenham's sensational drama about a truly dysfunctional family.

By New York City
Victor Slezak and Laila Robins in That Face
(© Joan Marcus)
Victor Slezak and Laila Robins in That Face
(© Joan Marcus)
In order to fully understand the appeal of That Face, which is now being seen at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I after an award-winning run in London, it helps to know that the playwright, Polly Stenham, was only 19 years old when she wrote this sensational (in all senses of the word) work about the ultimate dysfunctional family. Don't let anyone tell you this is a black comedy, though; That Face is an artful attempt to give meaning to misery.

Moreover, one can't help but sense that there is something autobiographical about the story presented on stage; the characters are so sharply defined that they seem etched in reality. The mother, Martha (Laila Robins), walks a tightrope between sanity and self-destruction, the father, Hugh (Victor Slezak), abandons the family to live half a world away, their son, Henry, (Christopher Abbott) is so intent upon saving his mother that he is losing his grip on normality, and their daughter, Mia (Cristin Milioti) rages at the mother, yearns for her father's acceptance, and in the play's opening scene, nearly beats one of her private school classmates to death.

Milioti, who gives a stunning performance, enriches this seemingly brittle and biting young woman with both a saucy grittiness and aching sense of need and vulnerability. One realizes that ultimately, Mia is the one character most likely to survive the emotional carnage that takes place in this familial train wreck.

Robins gives a performance of remarkable emotional modulation as Martha, who is perhaps a theatrical first cousin to Blanche DuBois (a role the actress has previously played). Robins begins the play at a fever pitch and yet finds new and different ways to play her agony without ever going over the top.

In perhaps the play's most difficult role, Abbott infuses his character all at once with nobility, desperation, and a sense of torture. Meanwhile Slezak is suitably imperious, and Betty Gilpin as Mia's accomplice, Izzy, is deliciously mean and shallow.

Director Sarah Benson, who knows a few things about dysfunction after staging the highly acclaimed annihilation play Blasted at Soho Rep, brings a strong sense of pacing to the work and to the way the characters relate to each other in the play. The characters are often in motion, either stalking or fleeing one another, adding a kinetic sense of motion to this intermissionless and gripping one-act tragedy.


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