Carey Mulligan is brilliant as a wife and mother telling the gripping story of her family in Dennis Kelly’s engrossing one-woman show, Girls & Boys, which has been extended at the Minetta Lane through July 22. The play unfolds in a series of “chats” in which Mulligan, as the unnamed woman, speaks directly to the audience, interrupted by scenes in which she interacts with her two unseen children, Leanne and Danny. Mulligan speaks to the audience from a shallow, confined area at the front of the stage; the scenes with the children take place when the back wall opens up onto an idyllic kitchen/living room, a large space with objects arranged as if in a Morandi painting, all bathed in a soft robin’s-egg-blue evoking fantasy and memory. (The set is by Es Devlin, with lighting by Oliver Fenwick.) Recounting a brief period in her youth when she went wild with men and drugs, the woman recalls the turning point in her life, a drunken night with her flatmate in which they continued having sex after she threw up. “I remember thinking, ‘If he doesn’t come soon, he’s going to fuck me right into that puddle of puke,’” she says. “Let me tell you something — when a sentence like that appears in your life, you know it’s time to start looking at your choices.” Her tale continues as she relates meeting in an airport queue the man she would eventually marry, and she later describes how she got a job “as a development executive’s assistant’s . . . executive assistant” in a documentary filmmaking company. In between discussing belief, violence, and truth, she plays with, scolds, and shares tender moments with Leanne and Danny. But as her career takes off, her husband’s, selling antique wardrobes, starts experiencing problems that affect their marriage.
Tony winner Kelly (Matilda the Musical, Taking Care of Baby) and Olivier-winning director Lyndsey Turner (Machinal, Chimerica) expertly pace the Royal Theatre production, carefully revealing key bits of plot before a critical moment occurs about two-thirds of the way through, setting up the shocking finale. Oscar and Tony nominee Mulligan (Skylight, An Education) is extraordinary as the woman; as the tension builds over the course of 105 intermissionless minutes, she holds her body ever tighter, barely moving as she gets to the hardest parts of her tale. But through it all, the woman refuses to condemn the human race for the problems she experiences. “I think a lot about violence,” she explains. “Not because I want to or anything. I just think it’s such a fundamental part of our species that how can you understand us without understanding it?” She adds, “And please don’t misunderstand, I’m not negative about . . . us — I think we’re incredible. The things we’ve done. The things we do. I mean if I collapse right here, tonight — you’ll all look after me. You will. You will do that.” At the end of the play, you will want to look after the woman, but of course you can’t; such is the cathartic nature of high-quality, powerful theater. But her story is likely to stay in your mind and heart for a long, long time. (Girls & Boys is the second one-person show produced by Audible at the Minetta Lane Theatre, following David Cale’s Harry Clarke, which starred Billy Crudup. Both plays are available as audiobooks; you can listen to a sample of the former here.)