Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
Theater review:

'That Face' at Center Stage looks at ultra-dysfunctional family

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Remember "Absolutely Fabulous"? That wickedly funny BBC sitcom introduced the character of a well-off, dysfunctional, British mother (and her equally flawed gal pal), spouting "Sweetie darling" in between fresh infusions of drugs and booze.

Now try to imagine the darkest possible flip-side of that show. I mean really, really dark. That's one way to describe "That Face," the searing drama written a decade ago by then-19-year-old British playwright Polly Stenham. (She even has one of her characters slip a few "Sweetie darlings" in between nasty business.)

To inaugurate its 99-seat performance space located behind the stage of the revamped Head Theater, a perfect spot for edgy work, Center Stage is offering a potent production of "That Face."

It's easy to understand why the play caused something of a sensation when it was new. Stenham's precocity is everywhere in evidence. She has conjured up a world of posh Brits gone off the rails, wallowing in messes of their own making, grasping for life rafts ever out of reach.

She is particularly adept at capturing the voice of self-absorbed youths. And when she tosses in humor, it has quite the sting.

At the heart of the matter is Martha, an alcoholic abandoned by her husband and abnormally attached to her son, Henry, who appears to have assumed the role of her lover as well as enabler.

Any attempt by Henry to break away is risky; his mother has a particularly devilish way of showing her displeasure when he spends the night elsewhere (it involves knives and clothing).

That Martha is a name with rich theatrical connotations — as in Martha, the drunken, acerbic, would-be mother in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" — adds a pointed layer to Stenham's study of familial failings.

The playwright does not bother much with back story. We never learn enough about how or why everyone has reached the state they're in, what caused the marital break-up or why the couple's two children have become so slippery in terms of morals and moorings.

But in the course of its 90 minutes, "That Face" certainly reveals an awful lot about just how close to the edge these people are. It's a harrowing sight.

In the unsettling opening scene, Martha's daughter, Mia, helps her take-charge friend Izzy put another boarding school student through a literally torturous initiation. The nature and consequences of that act haunt the rest of the play in one way or another.

News of the deed brings Mia's father, Hugh, flying back in from Hong Kong (he lives there with another woman) to try to smooth things over at the school. But his return also means a reunion with Martha and Henry, and that can't possibly go well.

When Hugh sees the flat where wife and son have been living — not to mention the jewels and dressing gown on Henry — he speaks of a "nightmarish quality." An understatement, that. Henry gets his revenge by spitting out what he must believe to be the ultimate insult to his fresh-from-the-airport father: "You reek of duty-free."

A well-matched cast that includes Broadway and Off-Broadway veterans jumps wholeheartedly into this disturbed world, fluently directed by Johanna Gruenhut. (One misstep: A decision to create a light musical interlude for the actors at the end of the play. Better to sustain the bleak mood than break it.)

Leenya Rideout gives a riveting performance as manipulative Martha, making even each cigarette puff meaningful. Josh Tobin taps into Henry's neuroses with impressive nuance and brings startling intensity to the climactic scenes.

The weak, but possibly redeemable, Mia is vividly portrayed by Emily Juliette Murphy. Sarah Nicole Deaver captures the attitude and rather pathetic needs of Izzy. Patrick Boll mostly persuades as Hugh, and Madison Fae takes on the thankless role of the abused student.

The stage, set up in the round, features a spare, evocative set by Ryan Michael Haase. Excellent costumes (Sarah Cubbage), lighting (Jane Chan) and sound (Veronica J. Lancaster) complete the stylish production values.

By turns creepy, funny and just plain horrifying, "That Face" is not easy to look at, but not easy to forget, either.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"That Face" will be performed through Sunday at Center Stage, Tickets are $20 to $25. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.

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