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Charlayne Woodard and Cristin Milioti give excellent performances in David Adjmi's engrossing if frustrating play about life in Brooklyn's Syrian-Jewish community.

Charlayne Woodard and Cristin Milioti in Stunning
(© Erin Baiano)
The intriguing and affecting relationship between a young Syrian-Jewish woman and her live-in African-American housekeeper is central to David Adjmi's often engrossing Stunning, currently performing at The Duke on 42nd Street as part of Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 initiative. While this lively and engaging play convincingly depicts the growing intimate friendship between the two women, it falls frustratingly short of coming together as a unified, thematically cohesive whole.

The play kicks off with a satiric scene in which 16-year-old Lily (Cristin Milioti) kibitzes with her older sister (Jeanine Serralles) and another friend (Sas Goldberg), their spoiled materialism and self-absorption on full display. They may as well be dubbed "The Real Housewives of Brooklyn" as they prattle on about their tans and gossip about the scandal of a neighbor's divorce. The scene certainly does its job in quickly giving us a snapshot of the lifestyle and values of this community's women, even if it's been directed by Anne Kauffman more broadly over-the-top than everything else that follows.

Soon after, Lily is alarmed when she returns to her all-white home (rendered by David Korins) to discover that Blanche (Charlayne Woodard),the new middle-aged housekeeper she hired, is African-American rather than Puerto Rican, as is apparently the custom in this subculture. It's enough to put the immature, gum-chewing housewife on the verge of a panic attack. Indeed, Lily's married life has been so fully dominated and controlled by her shady, testosterone-fueled, and considerably older husband Ike (Danny Mastrogiorgio) that she's essentially terrified of anything out of the ordinary.

After scoring some initial laughs by contrasting the two women -- for instance, when Blanche mentions her degree from Brown, Lily assumes it must be a college where black people go -- Adjmi credibly depicts a deeper mentor-student relationship in which the older, worldly-wise Blanche tenderly prompts Lily to question her values, her marriage, and even her sexuality. The consciousness-raising is further freshened up by the flavorful details and comic touches in Adjmi's writing and by the enormously entertaining performances from the actresses.

Milioti helps to make Lily a singular creation, both outrageously absurd in her ignorance and vulnerably human, and the actress depicts the character's gradual enlightenment in credible, incremental degrees. Woodard is both captivating and fierce as Blanche, giving her a strength and groundedness that make the character's growing importance to Lily fully credible. Conversely, Adjmi has rendered the other supporting characters (including Ike's business partner and brother-in-law, played by Steven Rattazzi) as basically one-dimensional, which is a detriment to the play.

The larger problem with the work is that it seems to reach for a larger theme that doesn't quite come off, and some of Adjmi's plotting (recurring references to a ghost in the house, for example) seems more convenient than thematically purposeful. This is especially felt as the second act winds down toward a less than effective conclusion, following revelations about and actions by Blanche that seem to belong to a different, more sensationalized play than Stunning first appears to be.