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THEATER REVIEW

Polly Stenham's 'That Face' at Studio Theatre is a mass of scandal and shock

Creepy: Eva Wilhelm and Patrick Cragin are too close.
Creepy: Eva Wilhelm and Patrick Cragin are too close. (Carol Pratt)
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By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, February 25, 2010

It takes a while to sort out the actual crisis in Polly Stenham's "That Face," because the 90-minute drama at the Studio Theatre's 2ndStage is a bit overwhelmed with scandal and shock.

The starter -- a hazing ritual in which a teenage girl is doped and savagely beaten at prep school -- isn't even in the running, really. But that's enough to nudge the story toward the squalid home of one of the two guilty mean girls, and what Stenham unveils there is a real sideshow of Oedipal dysfunction.

The hook here isn't the drama so much as Stenham herself, who was only 19 in 2007 when this London hit debuted. It's a youthful piece: Everything's pushed to extremes. But the instincts aren't bad; the dialogue is angry yet articulate, and the plot boasts a psychological role reversal near the end that suggests Stenham can do more than sling words around tabloid plots.

"That Face" is still a minefield to act, though, peppered as it is with overheated scenes of bashing and bedding. Dana Levanovsky has her hands full as Mia, the girl who rightfully faces expulsion from boarding school but whose home life is too weird to endure. Mia hates her mom -- Martha, the kids call her -- and Martha hates her back. Dad's been away in Hong Kong as a broker for years, and Mia's 18-year-old brother Henry (who sees himself as the new man of the house, poor dear) won't excuse her behavior. Thus Mia's role comes with a ton of venom that Levanovsky can't always keep fresh.

That's almost okay, for perpetual disgust seems an understandable reaction the more you see of Henry and Martha. Son and mother are locked in a creepy libidinous tango that rarely leaves the double bed; what's interesting is how much Henry rationalizes his actions as caretaking of the heavily medicated, half-demented Martha. As Henry, Patrick Thomas Cragin plays the conflict fairly nicely: He's a voice of reason, but also piled high with guilt and loathing.

The black hole of the family is Martha, a devouring, boundary-crashing diva who seems to have been ripped from a lurid old B movie. Eva Wilhelm, sashaying in a slip and with her hair tousled practically to the ceiling of the low fourth-floor space at the Studio, hits all the right notes of emotional egotism and forbidden sensuality. By the end, she almost makes this figure plausible.

The drama remains a stick-figure show, however, with the usual villain taking blame in the end. Rahaleh Nassri's production shows great faith in the playwright, though. The evening features a simple upscale look that efficiently evokes London's well-off, and the acting meets the writing's earnestness head-on. This in-yer-face drama -- a recent British genre featuring aggressive themes, language and action -- won't exactly leave you gobsmacked, but it certainly serves notice of young Polly Stenham's name.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

That Face

by Polly Stenham. Directed by Rahaleh Nassri. Set, Luciana Stecconi; lights, Colin Bills; costumes, Kristy Hall; sound design, Elisheba Ittoop. With Zehra Fazal, Angela Weichbrodt and Will Cooke. About 90 minutes. Through March 14 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit http://www.studiotheatre.org.


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