A Seedling Grows in Brooklyn
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Lily lives a soft life in a hard place. At 16, she has been married off to an older man of her tribe, a volatile tradesman who keeps her in luxury but values her only as a babymaker. Consumed with the materialism of her tiny domain, and absorbed into a circle of similarly cosseted wives, she remains oblivious to the universe of ideas and struggles beyond her door.
If that sounds like a character sketch from the 14th century, you have only to enter the mirrored, ivory-colored rooms of the garishly modern Brooklyn home in "Stunning" to see a Lily of that variety languishing on the present-day soil. And to see that playwright David Adjmi is showing us how, in the cultural claustrophobia of some households, little has changed in 700 years.
"Stunning" is receiving a world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and in its caustic, cold-eyed depiction of a girl's plight in a stifling Syrian Jewish enclave, the play migrates intriguingly from the path of comedy to a realm more plaintive and tragic. Adjmi offers a passel of sharply funny characters, from the alternately shrewd and guileless Lily, played by a wonderfully cast Laura Heisler, to Lily's enigmatic housekeeper, portrayed with dryly witty detachment by Quincy Tyler Bernstine.
Only in the late stages of "Stunning" does Adjmi stumble. After developing a complex entanglement of feeling between Lily and Bernstine's Blanche, the author shifts gears rather unconvincingly, in the cause of a thoroughly overheated climax. Self-consciously, too, Adjmi overlays allusions to "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- the domestic apparently is not named Blanche for nothing -- in ways that unnecessarily steer his work toward a game of famous play-association.
Yet when "Stunning" is immersing itself fully in Lily's insular world, Adjmi offers a powerful depiction of the pampered and suffocating dimensions of her life. In the playwright's grabber of an opening scene, Lily, her sister Shelly (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and their friend Claudine (Abby Wood) are seated at a table on Daniel Conway's white-on-white set. They chatter and chatter and chatter, in a rat-a-tat stream of consciousness carried on in persuasive Brooklynese. The topics that obsess them -- clothes, shopping, skin care, pregnancy, a trip to Aruba -- denote the traditional, limited roles to which they are consigned, as surely as if each had been poured into a concrete cast.
It is the tragedy of Lily's wasted youth -- stunning, you might say -- that drives the play. Behind those lazy Midwood vowels, the girl's no dummy. But she's never been given any cause to think for herself or to hope that she would be in a position to use her head. Instead, she's been wedded to a man from her community (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend), a fitness-crazed brute named Ike whose notions of femininity do indeed derive from concepts abandoned in the Eisenhower era.
Goodfriend makes a swell contribution as greasy, self-pitying Ike. Between pec-flexing sessions, Ike calls himself Daddy and indulges his teenage bride with wads of cash stashed in his socks. Although Ike's in the garment business, it's not clear how much of his capital is gleaned from what falls off the backs of trucks.
He has installed Lily in a sterile castle that might be mistaken for a high-security prison; Conway's starkly impressive set is all mirrors and bright lights and panels that slide to reveal yet other white rooms with mirrors and panels and lighting. (Costume designer Helen Q. Huang's inspired creations include a frilly black-and-white party dress for Lily that makes the candy-sucking Heisler look poignantly underage.)
The entry into her life of enigmatic, erudite Blanche cracks the plaster of Lily's psychic cell. Playing CDs of Rachmaninoff and holding forth on semiotics, Blanche is mystifyingly overqualified for the job of polishing Lily's platinum knobs. Soon, Blanche is applying both a sensual and intellectual varnish to Lily herself, an education Lily soaks up fervently. In an amusing dinner scene at their in-laws', Ike erupts after Lily tries to explain her newly acquired wisdom about the origins of Syrian Jews and their connection to the Inquisition.
"We're Iberian people!" Lily exclaims with tender finality. To which the primitive Ike has no reply, except "Shut up!"
Director Anne Kauffman elicits several keenly etched performances; Fernandez-Coffey, for instance, paints Shelly, the manicured elder sister, as a figure of such cold fury that you get to see something fresh about the toll exacted by denial. Adjmi has given Kauffman and Bernstine a more formidable challenge in the creation of Blanche, who amounts to a version of what has become a stock character: the African American maid who arrives with enlightenment along with her feather duster.
The twist here, however, is the uncertainty of whether Blanche is what she seems. With a finely calibrated air of the elusive, Bernstine succeeds in keeping us in suspense. The character is compromised, and the play goes a bit off the rails, at the point at which Adjmi transforms Ike into a Stanley to Bernstine's Blanche. And in the play's final, sensationalistic turn, one feels as if the axis of the piece has been suddenly tilted in a peculiar direction.
Still, when Adjmi is delivering his harsh verdict on Lily's predicament, he evokes a social problem with an entertaining specificity -- and ferocity. "Stunning" manages to be both crass and clarifying.