Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Monday - Saturday through February 29, $70-$150
It’s always a pleasure watching the exquisite Laura Linney, whether on television, in film, or onstage. Nominated for three Oscars and four Tonys and winner of four Emmys, the Manhattan native has an instantly infectious appeal; you want to be in her luminous presence. She is terrific once again in her latest Broadway play, the one-woman show My Name Is Lucy Barton, which is based on Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel and continues at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 29. Under Richard Eyre’s expert direction, she flows between sharing her story with the audience and portraying her mother. So why isn’t it better?
Born and raised in the rural town of Amgash, Illinois, Lucy is now reflecting on a critical time in her life, when she spent nearly nine weeks in a New York City hospital. Her husband hates hospitals, so he refuses to visit her, instead choosing to care for their two young daughters. She is estranged from her parents and siblings but is shocked when her mother, who she hasn’t seen in many years, unexpectedly arrives and spends days and days sitting in a chair in Lucy’s hospital room, mostly gossiping about people from the old neighborhood, quite disinterested in Lucy and her family. While her mother is there, Lucy recalls the physical and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents and discusses the life she led as a child, with no television, no newspapers or magazines, no books, no friends, no sense of personal identity. “How do you even know what you look like if the only mirror in the house is a tiny one high above the kitchen sink?” she says.
So she set out on a new course, moving to the big city but unable to shake a haunting loneliness. “I was lonely,” she explains. “Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It’s this loneliness that is at the center of the story, and primarily women’s loneliness. Her mother can’t stop talking about women like her friend Kathie Nicely and her cousin Harriet, who left their husbands or were left by them, and their often unsuccessful efforts to make new lives and establish their own identities.
But there’s also a lonely feeling watching the play; we wrap ourselves around Linney (The Little Foxes, The Big C, The Savages), not the narrative, which seems inconsequential for the most part, and the material lets down the rest of Eyre’s (Guys and Dolls, Notes on a Scandal) production, which is stellar. Bob Crowley’s pristine set consists of a chair and a hospital bed as well as three successively larger wall screens in the back on which video designer Luke Halls projects peaceful shots of corn and soybean fields in Illinois and the Chrysler Building and streets of New York City, with precise lighting by Peter Mumford as Linney shifts between characters.
Despite it being her story, Lucy is an unreliable narrator. She regularly says “I think,” not firm in what she is relating. At one point she says of her mother, “Maybe she didn’t say that. I don’t remember.” Later she admits, “I still am not sure it’s a true memory, except I do know it, I think. I mean: It is true.” It’s as if she’s doing a (wonderfully) staged reading of the book; Rona Munro’s (The James Plays, Bold Girls) adaptation sounds more like an audiobook you can listen to while driving. In fact, the play is presented “in association with” Penguin Random House Audio, which published the audiobook in 2016, read very differently by Kimberly Farr. But forgetting everything else, there is one main reason to see the play, and her name is Laura Linney.