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The bad news, on the young women playwrights’ front, is that the trend is toward yet another round of dysfunctional-family plays. That’s so, at least, if three new plays by young women, arriving simultaneously, constitute a trend. But that bad news is both unimportant and outdated, the dysfunctional-family play having been with us since Clytemnestra first suggested that Agamemnon needed a bath. The much better and more recent news is that nowadays, when three young women offer dysfunctional-family plays, they’re no longer cut from the same pattern: The plays, the families, and even the species of dysfunction come in gratifyingly wild variety. Consequently, no facile generalizations can be made about the writing: Each of these playwrights is demonstrably her own woman. More power to them.
The most arresting of the trio is Kate Fodor, whose 100 Saints You Should Know marks a great step forward from her Hannah and Martin of two years ago—stronger in structure, with characters who feel freer and more fully rounded than the earlier play’s slightly rigid historical figures. The fictional figures who populate100 Saints still have a degree of schematism, because Fodor’s writing has a cerebral streak. Ideas interest her; as a result, she occasionally lets her characters explain themselves too literally. But she also has sharp powers of observation, a wide range of sympathies, and a fascination with the ways people misconnect during their struggles to sort out their lives. It isn’t every playwright these days whose skill set includes both a brain and a heart.
Fodor builds 100 Saints on five lost souls in search of something to believe in: a priest (Jeremy Shamos) in the process of leaving the church; his conventionally pious mother (Lois Smith); his rectory’s cleaning woman (Janel Moloney), a single parent with a messy past; her bright, rebellious teenage daughter (Zoe Kazan); and a teenage neighbor (Will Rogers) of the priest’s mother. An accident to the boy, triggered by his encounter with the cleaning woman’s daughter, forces the other four to scrutinize their dishearteningly empty lives. The problems involved are familiar—most audiences will guess the priest’s trouble well before he reveals it—but Fodor grants her people a degree of intelligence, and a drive for self-understanding, that gets beyond the obvious, smartly avoiding any facile resolutions. She’s good with the generational disparities, and even better at evoking the way the large, impersonal outside world tends to give everyone nowadays a touch of helplessness. If she sometimes lapses, a little repetitively, into telling rather than showing—as she does with both the story of the priest’s fall from grace and the cleaning woman’s efforts at prayer—her thoughtful view of the tales she has to tell makes them worth a fresh hearing. You feel that her characters, unlike many in recent plays, actually have lives to lead.
That you feel this comes partly from Ethan McSweeny’s quiet, subtle production, which knows just when to raise its pitch and just when to accelerate, without trying to whip every scene up to a NASCAR finish. Rachel Hauck’s set seconds him strongly, deploying a lot of machinery with wonderful unobtrusiveness. And McSweeny’s cast couldn’t be bettered, even though Rogers takes an unwise cue from the playwright in underscoring the boy’s awkwardness too heavily. Kazan and Moloney fill the mother-daughter scenes with a lovely mix of electricity and pathos. Smith builds the priest’s mother, for all the woman’s conventionality, into an original and even commanding figure. And Shamos—I have to apologize: After Engaged, The Rivals, and Gutenberg!: The Musical, I naturally assumed he was just a delightful comic actor. But watch him in this play, sitting on the floor while a woman in a chair behind him strokes his head: The expressions that chase one another across his face—always unobtrusively, with no signalling—make an entire chapter in the book of great acting.
Fodor’s play contains a tiny bait-and-switch: You assume the cleaning woman and her daughter are of a lower social class than the priest’s family, but this turns out not to be the case. Lucy Thurber’s Scarcity, at the Atlantic, deals with earthly salvation, and for Thurber, the social mores bound up with economic class turn out to be as big an obsession as questions of the spirit are for Fodor. Scarcity takes place in western Massachusetts, where a wealthy country-house elite has always lived scattered among sturdy peasant-stock families, on whom a blend of rust-belt economics and insular small-town mores has wrought a slow, steady decline. Thurber loves, and rightly, the life in this peasantry, its capacity for survival when all hope of upward mobility has fled to California. Her focus is a rowdy couple (juicily incarnated by Kristen Johnston and Michael J. Weiss), whose genetic mix has produced two exceptionally bright offspring. However, their mixture of poverty and the low-class behavior that comes with it (alcoholism, chronic adultery) has turned these scions into silent, inner- directed latchkey kids, enablers for an overworked/underpaid mom and a dad
who often has to be carried home plastered.
Through a well-meaning teacher, the couple’s teenage son (played with breathtaking power and accuracy by Jesse Eisenberg) gets a chance to escape the food-stamp treadmill, and Thurber’s play traces the effect of this lucky accident—a counterpart to the unlucky one at the center of 100 Saints—on the couple, their kids, and the contrasting couple (Todd Weeks and Miriam Shor) who are their closest friends and frequent victims. Thurber captures a lot of this story in zesty detail, not scanting either the odiousness or the genuine warmth in this screwed-up family’s life. Her major problem stems from her depiction of the teacher, whom she makes into such a monster of selfish, unethical cluelessness that Maggie Kiley has to emit what seems like megatons of forced sweetness to make the role even tolerable. Partly this situation stems from Thurber’s secondary problem, which is somewhat the opposite of Fodor’s: She pushes every action, for good or ill alike, to its emotional extreme. This gives her script a bouncier theatricality, of which Jackson Gay’s snappy directing takes full advantage, but also weakens its plausibility. After watching the parents go through so many instant reversals, it’s hard to believe the kids aren’t already too messed-up to survive the ordeal. Still, Thurber’s flair and Eisenberg’s emotional grip make Scarcity seem like plenty.
Ann Marie Healy’s Have You Seen Steve Steven?, in contrast, seems like very little. That a playwrights’ collective like 13P should stick by its members is fine, but Healy, currently a graduate student in playwriting at Brown, has turned out what’s visibly student work, spattered all over with traces of favorite student reading—linguistic left turns from Ionesco, mysterious intruders from Pinter, nattering suburban absurdity from Durang, and so on. Hints of a genuine talent keep peeping through, but 13P might have shown a braver solidarity by not rushing Healy onto a New York stage. They’ve given her a classy production, by Anne Kauffman, with particularly striking performances by Stephanie Wright Thompson and Brandon Bales as the kids at the core of the absurdity. But the play remains class work for all that.