The award-laden Laura Linney can spin gold from pretty much anything, as proven in projects as diverse as Tales of the City, Ozark, and The Big C. Not just that, she can make that gold intelligible, epic, and also everyday. Her latest Broadway play, My Name is Lucy Barton—opening tonight (to Feb 29, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)—features a commanding solo performance (by Linney) in service of an underpowered play.
The novel of the same name, by Elizabeth Strout, is rightly acclaimed: it is both an unpeeling and reforming of the character of its title, a New York City woman who in the 1980s becomes very ill, stays for a period of weeks in the hospital, and whose principal antagonist and confidante in that time is her mother who comes to visit her from rural Illinois. But Lucy Barton loses something in transfer from page to stage.
Critics lavished this London Theatre Company production, directed by Richard Eyre, with praise when it played in Blighty.
In this Manhattan Theatre Club transfer, Linney’s brilliance—and it really is brilliance; it is simply a pleasure to watch and listen to her—lies in her ability to inhabit both Lucy, as she relates the experience of a life on hold before taking us back to a painful story of her past, and also her mother, who is both judgmental and also soothing. The women have so much mutual suspicion and pain inside them, yet they need one another.
Linney’s performance is an impressive feat in itself: a monologue that stretches for just over 90 minutes that Linney paces, enunciates, and colors in beautifully.
The problem is that in the book, you delight in Strout’s narrative diversions and avenues—such as Lucy’s mom regaling us with the long tale of family friend/nemesis Kathie Nicely. On stage, Linney inhabiting Lucy’s mom telling us about Kathie Nicely begins a fun piece of ventriloquism—Lucy’s mom a purse-lipped mix of gossip and poison—but soon becomes, “What was that for?” What are the stakes and perils for Lucy? What is going to be the beating heart of her story? The play orbits many things, but doesn’t settle on a central mystery or question to be answered.
The play’s problem is progression. The adaptation of Strout’s novel cannot help but echo the book’s circling and burrowing. Not much happens. Bob Crowley’s design is simple: the hospital bed, a chair, and a window from which Lucy can see the Chrysler Building. Projections—a brownstone, Illinois cornfields—take us to other places. Peter Mumford’s lighting is another subtle silent character. These accoutrements are beautiful and evocative, but not transporting.
The only perspective is Lucy’s. The mysteries are all inner. So, when Lucy finds herself very ill in hospital and she gazes into a room and sees a man staring back at her from another gurney, she immediately thinks it is an AIDS patient. Then later she thinks it may be a friend of hers, who turns out to be gay, and suddenly very ill, and then dead. But Lucy’s engagement with the LGBT life of Greenwich Village and the traumas of that time feel surface at best; you sense her observing the Pride parade from her fancy stoop quizzically and not much else.
Lucy’s brother is made to parade through the streets of their Illinois town in high heeled shoes by their father, who wants to traumatize the boy’s perceived homosexuality out of him.
But we don’t learn much more about what scar that left (or didn’t). These fleeting engagements with very big things continue with Lucy’s own life; her father’s abuse, her mother’s passive neglect, the contained wariness of their relationship.
The play sharpens when Linney evokes Lucy’s own ruthlessness as a writer—to both escape Illinois for New York City, and to mine as much material as necessary to make a success of her life. That rings true, but Lucy Barton’s odyssey itself remains too locked away and too much a dense mystery to include us, never mind to shock or surprise us. Laura Linney is a masterful storyteller, but—on stage—this is not a masterfully constructed story.