Blanche Nesbitt doesn’t cook, but she does do windows. And chaos. In David Adjmi’s Stunning, Blanche (Charlayne Woodard), an African-American woman in her forties, irons shirts and wreaks havoc when she’s hired as a live-in maid to Lily (Cristin Milioti), a gum-chewing child bride, and Ike (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a garment industry thug. Adjmi sets this domestic drama in the insular world of Brooklyn’s Syrian Jews, the community from which he hails.
Blanche claims to have earned a Ph.D. in semiotics, but her affected chatter and obsessive name-dropping—citing Cornel West as a former flame, bell hooks as a close pal—become conspicuous. No one in Adjmi’s world, though, is who they seem: The playwright reveals characters as invariably more callow, more vicious, and more self-deceiving than they first appear. He has a remarkable talent for showing the cruelty and avidity that lurk on the other side of civility. And you can’t top him for violent language and imagery, as when Lily’s sister Shelly (a divinely spiteful Jeanine Serralles) tells her, “Don’t you dare come crawling to me on your hands and knees, because I’ll kick you right in the throat.”
Stunning, produced by Lincoln Center’s LCT3 series, is a rabbit punch of a play, opening as satire and transforming—sneak-attack-style—into brutal tragedy. Despite the linguistic precision of Adjmi’s script and the fierce efficiency of Anne Kauffman’s direction, this shift isn’t entirely successful. Having mocked his characters, Adjmi then expects his audience to mourn them. He also expects us to credit the unlikely sexual relationship that Blanche and Lily develop: Woodard endows Blanche with a sinewy attraction and Milioti has a vulnerable charm, but their interaction lacks heat. Adjmi has written a difficult play—glossy and jagged, comfortable and discomfiting—but for a play about a maid, it ultimately proves too untidy.