Meredith Brandt, Kristen Johnston, Jesse Eisenberg,
and Michael T. Weiss in Scarcity
(© Doug Hamilton)
Meredith Brandt, Kristen Johnston, Jesse Eisenberg,
and Michael T. Weiss in Scarcity
(© Doug Hamilton)
Kristen Johnston, Michael T. Weiss, and Jesse Eisenberg give strong, nuanced performances in the world premiere of Lucy Thurber's Scarcity, which is getting its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. While the play, directed by Jackson Gay, is compelling, it's marred by a few significant flaws.

Scarcity is set in a small town in Western Massachusetts, where Martha (Johnston) works hard to support her family with little help from her alcoholic deadbeat husband Herb (Weiss). She is occasionally assisted with bill paying and groceries by her cousin Louie (Todd Weeks), who makes no secret of his amorous intentions towards her, despite his being married to Gloria (Miriam Shor).

Martha and Herb's children, 16-year-old Billy (Eisenberg) and 11-year-old Rachel (Meredith Brandt), are both intellectually gifted, but are constantly in danger of being stifled by their home life. Billy bottles up his anger, which still manifests in fist fights with classmates, and longs for a chance to escape. The attentions of his teacher Ellen (Maggie Kiley) offer him an opportunity to transfer to an out-of-town private school, but her interest goes beyond the bounds of propriety.

Thurber sets up her action in an engaging manner, and the central four-person family unit is well-defined. Johnston is wonderful as Martha, bringing a warmth to the character -- particularly in her more comedic moments -- but also displaying a strength of will that makes her dangerous. Martha knows what compromises she needs to make in the best interests of her family, but she'll only allow herself to be pushed so far. Weiss manages the difficult feat of making Herb utterly detestable (the inappropriate comments he makes about his daughter are particularly nauseating), yet still pathetically sympathetic.

Eisenberg lets Billy's emotions simmer just underneath the surface, occasionally exploding into a rage, or clamping down to avoid doing just that. While Billy manipulates Ellen for his own ends, we never lose sight of his own vulnerability and how much it may be costing him to act the way that he does. Brandt still needs to work on her vocal projection and enunciation, but she succeeds in making us care about Rachel, and the young girl's uncertain fate at the end of the play seems the most tragic.

Unfortunately, Thurber is not as adept at fleshing out the remaining characters, or making their actions completely legible. Ellen, in particular, is an enigma -- perhaps due to the fact that Kiley seems completely miscast. Several times in the script, characters make disparaging remarks about Ellen's appearance, yet Kiley is not only beautiful, she also comes across as superbly sophisticated. If she were more of a plain Jane or downright ugly and socially awkward, then her improper conduct towards Billy might seem more dramatically sound. Even then, the character as written seems woefully underdeveloped.

Shor makes the most of a rather minor role, bringing a humanity to Gloria's sullen resentment of Martha, which could easily slip into caricature. On the other hand, Weeks comes on too strong as Louie. True, the character is a jerk, but the actor doesn't need to drive the point home in as broad a manner as he does.

The most troubling aspect of the play, however, is an inconsistency of tone. There's a sit-com-like feel to several of the scenes that undermines the work's more serious intent. Thurber's goal seems to be to capture the fears and desires of this family that needs to fight to escape the pitfalls of its economic circumstances. Gay's direction mines the play's dark humor, but the audience often seems to be laughing at these lower-class characters in a way that is very problematic.