One day soon, Polly Stenham will relinquish her position as the “It” girl of British theater. And that suits her fine. “I’m really up for it,” she says with a grin.
Stenham came to prominence when That Face, her first play, written at just 19, debuted at the Royal Court in 2007, transferred to the West End, and won heaps of prizes, including a £25,000 award for most promising newcomer. Stenham, a moppet-like figure with an overgrown pixie cut and lashings of eyeliner, found herself splashed across the arts pages, earning encomia from normally staid critics. Even the rare detractor, like the Guardian‘s Lyn Gardner, who felt the play derivative, praised Stenham’s wit and talent for comedy.
Now an all-grown-up 23, with another successful play (Tusk Tusk) behind her and numerous commissions before her, Stenham has come to New York to supervise the U.S. debut of That Face, which opens May 18 at Manhattan Theatre Club under Sarah Benson’s direction. Seated at a teahouse across the street from MTC’s City Center, Stenham seems a jumble of adult and adolescent. She can discuss her writing process with an almost clinical dispassion, yet she possesses a teen’s awkwardness, squirming in her seat, avoiding eye contact, trying to unpick the woven mat beneath her cup of Purity tea, a hibiscus and chrysanthemum infusion with a shocking-pink hue.
That Face concerns an acutely unhappy upper-middle-class clan that somewhat resembles Stenham’s own upbringing. Mother Martha has a drinking problem, a bipolar disorder, and an unhealthy infatuation with her son, Henry, who has dropped out of school to care for her. Daughter Mia plays a dangerous prank that puts a classmate in the hospital and sends father Hugh winging back from Hong Kong to do damage control on the family he abandoned. Though the milieu is distinctly British, That Face ought to play well on this side of the Atlantic, too. Familial dysfunction doesn’t tend to respect national boundaries, and Stenham’s clearest antecedents—Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams—are American. (Well, you might count Oedipus Rex as an influence, also.)
During the first weeks of rehearsals, Stenham noted some disparities between British and American rehearsal practices. Most significantly: snacks. “There’s a whole table with, like, coffee and tea—all different kinds of tea—and Emergen-C and peanut butter,” she says, amazed. “I was like, ‘You’re joking!’ At the Royal Court, you’ve got to go and find a dirty mug under a load of other dirty mugs and wash it, and that’s the highlight.”
Stenham also feels herself under more pressure here. “In London, especially at the Royal Court, they love it if you fuck up,” she says. “If it’s bad, they’re like, ‘Let’s put it on another week.’ ” She doesn’t anticipate that same liberality from MTC. And she’s also contending with the idea that a single critic, sent from The New York Times, wields most of the power. “There are five reviewers who count in London, and from what I hear, it’s only one guy here, and that to me is bizarre,” she says. “God, should I send this guy cookies or something?”
When not in rehearsal, Stenham bikes around the Village and works on her third play, another commission for the Royal Court. Speaking of that theater, she notes, cheerfully, that this summer they’ll produce a play by an 18-year-old scribe, bringing that end to her tenure as the poster girl for young playwrights. “People are like, ‘Do you mind?’ I’m like, ‘Noooo.’ “