Saturday, September 08, 2007

Theater Review: The Atlantic Theater Company's Scarcity

by David Hatkoff

Having seen Spring Awakening and 10 Million Miles in the past year or so, and enjoying both quite a bit, I had high hopes for The Atlantic Theater Company's newest production, Lucy Thurber's Scarcity, which is currently in previews at the Off-Broadway's Laura Gross Theater. I was definitely not disappointed.

From the first moments of the play, which takes place entirely in the living room and kitchen of a Western Massachusetts family's small house, the world of these characters feels viscerally authentic, so much so that you can almost smell the stale cigarette smoke and beer in the air. There is love and affection in this family, but inappropriate relationships abound, and they fight like cats and dogs more often than they are kind to each other. They are lower-class (they are on food stamps and the matriarch works more than 50 hours a week) and are a generally uneducated bunch, but they are getting by.

Oh yeah -- they are also some of the most fully realized, three dimensional characters you are likely to see on a New York stage at the moment.

Herb (Michael T. Weiss) is the drunk, out-of-work father; Martha (Third Rock From the Sun's Kristen Johnston) is his chain-smoking, tough-as-nails wife; Billy (The Squid and the Whale's Jesse Eisenberg) is their gifted yet troubled 16-year-old son; and Rachel (Meredith Brandt), only 11, is the daughter who sees everything. Billy, who is in a progressive program at school that puts him in classes with the town's rich kids, feels trapped, knowing that if he stays where he is, he is likely to follow in the footsteps of his underachieving father. He longs to "be free" and "to fly," which seems suddenly possible when his teacher Ellen, an amateur anthropologist who feels like she can help Billy, comes in to the picture. That she seems to have sexual feelings for the teenager only complicates the scenario.

The actors, as directed by Jackson Gay, bring the playwright's loaded words to beautifully naturalistic life, and there is not a weak link in the cast. Eisenberg shines at the conflicted Billy -- his struggle over whether to leave his adoring sister behind to fend off her father's advances and her mother's physical abuse, or pursue a path that could lead to greater things is palpable. His physicality is spot-on, and the brother/sister relationship he creates with Brandt is one of the best illustrations of that bond I have ever seen on stage.

All the relationships are well developed, in fact, including the love you-hate you-you disappointed me-you are everything to me one between Johnston's Martha and Weiss' Herb. Johnston is something of a revelation -- I was only familiar with her television work, but here her throaty voice and ability to handle instant mood changes made her entirely credible as the put-upon mother who has embraced her own lot in life, but longs for a better life for her children, even if she has no idea how to give it to them. Brandt is similarly heartbreaking -- the fact that she is waiting for her chance "to fly" is palpable from the young actress.

You may think you've seen the "small town boy wants to escape his crappy family life" story before, but you haven't seen it like this. Bottom line -- I can't wait to see what The Atlantic does next.

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