Theater review: 'Lie With Me' tackles a taboo topic

DADDY DEAREST: Jim Brady and Rana Kay as a father and daughter with some dark secrets in the new play at Charter Theatre.
DADDY DEAREST: Jim Brady and Rana Kay as a father and daughter with some dark secrets in the new play at Charter Theatre. (Richard Washer)
By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is that weird, and is that true?

These questions keep coming up in Charter Theatre's "Lie With Me," whether voiced out loud or implicitly posed by the shocking plot line. To call this an incest drama just scratches the surface, for the family in this unnerving saga is twisted 10 ways to Sunday.

You can't say "Lie With Me" is on the cutting edge of dysfunction, though, for the culture is already up to its eyelids with the angry, creatively tawdry things people do to themselves and one another. That's apparently thanks to the rancid bosom that is the American family, a cliche that comes at you hard in Arlington's small Theatre on the Run space courtesy of Adam Ressa's set design of picket fences -- the evergreen cue for moral sludge in the suburbs.

Still, this unpretty picture has a few things going for it: Keith Bridges's wry, often chillingly honest writing, and the consistently disarming performance by one of the strongest casts in Charter's recent history. Bridges takes the tabloid material seriously, and the actors -- particularly Rana Kay as Carla, a now-grown daughter who repeatedly slept with her father -- make you care.

The play premiered in Los Angeles earlier this year (it's a co-production with L.A.'s Mutineer Theatre Company, led by this show's director, relocated Washingtonian Jon Cohn), and it sometimes takes chic pleasure in displaying its grim pathologies. Cutting and bulimia factor in; they even manage to get a comic spin in the wickedly manipulative figure of Carla's sister Susan. Carla, who is profoundly estranged from her family as the action begins, is an on-the-margins sex worker with, yes, a heart of gold. Her boyfriend, Ian, is working on a blogumentary. His subject, available for explicit viewing on the Web, is Carla and her illegal work.

Edgy, no? More conventionally, Carla's mother is dying of brain cancer, which naturally pulls everyone toward her hospital bed for confrontations that take place over her comatose body. It's here and in the family's house that Ian encounters the menacing father, the wacky nympho sister and the lies (the title is a tidy pun) about Carla's incestuous past.

The scenario sounds cable-ready, but it's unexpectedly absorbing for an hour, particularly because the sad yet sassy Kay manages to avoid any false notes as Carla. Ryan Mulkay is plausible as the sensitive but in-over-his-head Ian, Liz Brown is entertaining with Susan's desperate-for-attention gambits, and Maura McGinn is both loopy and haunting as the hallucinating mother who spills very old secrets on her deathbed.

As Stan -- and his furious daughters call him that, rather than "Dad" -- Jim Brady is especially good spouting venom at the intruding Ian in a scene that nearly achieves a Pinteresque blend of threat and laughter. Brady can't make much of Stan's sad-sack mea culpas, though; it's as if Bridges can't quite imagine how this awesome guilt can be played.

In fact, you increasingly wonder how clinically accurate the play's depictions are of incest and its aftermath, though the question dissipates after an intermission that feels like a mistake. It's not a play that should relax its grip: "Lie With Me" goes on too long and tries to articulate too much, and eventually Bridges can't find fresh words. When he can, though -- as when Susan glibly reassures the fretting Stan that she's "safe -- safe as the dead" -- it's intriguingly cracked.

Lie With Me

by Keith Bridges. Directed by Jon Cohn. Costumes, Jessica Seminario; lights, Franklin C. Coleman; sound, Bob Howard. About two hours. Through Nov. 22 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington. Call 202-333-7009 or visit

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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