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A CurtainUp Review
My Name Is Lucy Barton
By Elyse Sommer
Linney, who's also played pivotal roles in the works of Miller and Chekhov, is now back at the Friedman. But this time she's on that big stage all by herself and the play she's in is a page to stage adaptation of a novel by one of America's most original and insightful writers, Elizabeth Strout . My admiration for Strout's writing has grown with each of her seven books. It began with Amy and Isabelle and recently peaked with her incredibly moving latest, Olive Again — a follow up to her Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge.
That said, my Curtainup readers are familiar with my admitted preference for plays featuring at least two actors on stage (see my solo play feature 2-part solo play feature here). However, they also know that I'm always ready to be smitten by one that manages to show genuine theatrical heft. All it takes is a really sublime performance and an unusual and especially fine script . After all there have been quite a few that not only managed that but nabbed major awards (
Given My Name Is Lucy Barton's distinguished literary cache and the casting of Linney to narrate Lucy's story the staged monologue Rona Munro has fashioned from its source had me arrive at the Friedman with high hopes that it would display sturdy enough theatrical legs to add it to my memory book of genuinely stage-worthy solo plays. Unnlike the linked short stories format of Strout's small town Maine novels My Name Is Lucy Barton was a memoir with a single narrator. This made it the most viable choice to bring a Strout book to the stage, and with star soloist, make that a Broadway stage.
Actually, London critics and theater goers already gave this Lucy a thumbs up reception. Linney's performance garnered love letters, as did the adaptation and the production overall. Now that I've seen it, I find much to like but couldn't quite shake off my usual reservations about solo plays. Laura Linney is indeed quite remarkable in narrating this staged version of Lucy Barton's brief reunion with her estranged mother during her 9-week hospital stay caused by an unanticipated and unsolved problem by an appendectomy. She segues seamlessly between narrating her memories in both Lucy's and her mother's voice. It's too bad though that in this large theater too many people can't see at her facial expressions unless they bring opera glasses.
The mother and daughter conversations take us back to Lucy's long abandoned life in rural Amgash, Illinois, as well as current life as a young wife, mother and budding writer in New York. Besides painful memories about the family's poverty and dysfunction there are remembrances about fellow Amgashers (unkind neighbors and classmates but also a supportive teacher).
As the book was buoyed by Stout's rich language, Linney's radiant performance, no matter which voice she speaks in, draws us in. Still, to add another admission to my preference for multi-character plays, the source novel was moving, but I didn't find it as memorable as the Maine novels in which the author so imaginatively turned the linked stories structure into a unique literary genre . Since she used the linked story structure for her second Amgash novel, Anything Is Possible, perhaps she'll end up creating another epic saga for that slice of middle America.
Rona Munro is to be credited for adding theatrical heft to her source by giving her narrator hose two voices — and, of course, give Linney every opportunity to show off her versatility. But while much of Strout's language is intact, some of the best Stroutisms are missing — for example, this from the frequent talk about writing and writers in the book: "I have sometimes been sad that Tennessee Williams wrote that line for Blanche DuBois, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Many of us have been saved many times by the kindness of strangers, but after a while it sounds trite, like a bumper sticker. And that's what makes me sad, that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker."
Credit too to director Richrd Eyre and hs design team for having done everything possible to give Lucy and her mother's memories look and feel like a full-bodied play. To make the stage feel more populated they've added three tows of on stage seating at either side of the playing area and also added seats below each side of the stage (not incidentally, a smart tactic to also sell extra tickets).
The back wall morphs into a window for projectionist Luke Hall to create a fully staged look for the Amgash and New York recollections. A special bravo for Peter Mumford's mood enhancing lighting.
But all this clever staging notwithstanding I left the theater not convinced that this play belonged in a theater like this When Linney so brilliantly alternated the roles of Regina and Birdie with Cynthia Nixon in The Little Foxes she did have a cast of other characters to interact with. . . not to mention costumes and actual scenery. Therefore, while she does keep us engaged throughout, eventually this did feel somewhat more like an audio book delivered live than a completely satisfying Broadway play. In fact, after the play's limited run it WILL be released as a Penguin-Random House audio book .
Though Strout's multi character novels may be too expensive to adapt for the stage, her Olive Kitteridge was made into a terrific (still available) HBO TV series starring Frances McDormand. If you haven't seen it or read Strout's novels and seeing My Name Is Lucy Barton results in your doing so — that will be its richest takeaway.
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My Name Is Lucy Barton
Novel by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro
Cast: Laura Linney
Director: Richard Eyre
Design and C0stumes: Bof Crowley
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Sound: John Leonard
Projection Design: Luke Halls
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Stage Manager: Denose Yaney
Manhattan Theater Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theater
From 1/06/20pp opening 1/15/20; closing 2/29/20
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 18th press matinee
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