Linney is one of those actors who seems to glide effortlessly from project to project, from film to television to stage, and always with a thoroughly entertaining grasp of character: Those intelligent eyes reliably help us unravel the mysteries of motive and intention. In “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” which had its official Broadway opening Wednesday at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Linney casts two pairs of eyes, playing both the middle-aged woman of the title and her prickly estranged mother, who has come to visit her in the hospital.
Under Richard Eyre’s austere direction, Linney capably operates the revolving psychological door of Rona Munro’s monodrama, based on Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel. Lucy, a writer who escaped to New York after a rural Illinois childhood absent of material comfort and family warmth, wrestles in the hospital with infections external as well as internal: Her mother, a carrier of the contagion of cold disappointment, turns up at her daughter’s bedside for a vigil that sends Lucy reeling back through memories of a dry and sometimes violent upbringing, and ultimately to a deeper appreciation of the life she was later able to jump-start.
Yet, even at an economical 90 minutes, “My Name Is Lucy Barton” itself comes across as unfulfilling drama, as driven too transparently by novelistic formulas. Strout is the exemplary portraitist of “Olive Kitteridge,” a prizewinning novel turned into an equally rewarding miniseries starring Frances McDormand. Once again, in “Lucy Barton,” the most interesting character is an older woman defined by what she holds adamantly in check. Only in this more compressed stage rendition, Linney never gets to uncover the absorbing sorts of secrets that might distinguish “My Name Is Lucy Barton” from myriad dramatic meditations on mothers and daughters. The play, if this is possible, seems both too long and too short.
The production is not aided by its wispy underscoring or its postcard-photo backdrops, which are intended to summon resonant American imagery — and probably did, for audiences in the Bridge Theatre in London, where it originated. Here, they never rise above the level of cliche.
For Linney fans, though, there’s a full dose of an eminently watchable actress, commendably in charge, especially in the more brittle countenance of Lucy’s mom. While she’s sometimes cast for sunniness and a certain refinement, for my money Linney is made for an earthier sort of ambiguity. Think of her nuanced work in the Netflix crime thriller “Ozark” or such indie movies as “You Can Count on Me” and “The Savages.” When she shifts here into the mother’s harsher gears and Midwestern cadences, you get satisfying intimations of furtive and unpredictable forces. Darkness becomes her.
My Name is Lucy Barton, adapted by Rona Munro from the novel by Elizabeth Strout. Directed by Richard Eyre. Set and costume, Bob Crowley; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, John Leonard; video, Luke Halls. About 90 minutes. $89-$189. Through Feb. 29 at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.