nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 23, 2007
"Who says innocence is such a good thing?" says one of the characters early on in Lucy Thurber's new play, Scarcity, a position the author seems to share. No one is innocent in this bleak and pessimistic dramedy about a poverty-stricken white trash family in a rural Massachusetts town. The characters all try to get what little they can in life through emotionally shady means, a tactic Scarcity almost seems to encourage and condone. But, the play's unusual logic also leaves too many questions unanswered about the motives and reasoning of its denizens. Atlantic Theater Company's production, however, boasts some exquisite acting and an ensemble that is as good as any you'll find onstage right now. They are far and away the best reason to see Scarcity.
The story centers on a rancorous, down-at-heel family. Martha, the brash, loudmouthed matriarch, is married to Herb, the unemployed, greasy-looking town drunk. She supports him, as well as their two brainy kids—precocious Rachel and high-strung Billy—on her meager salary as an assistant manager down at the local supermarket. When Billy's new high school teacher, do-gooder Ellen, takes a special shine to him, he enlists her help in applying to a renowned private prep school so he can transfer the following term (and, therefore, high-tail it out of his volatile household). Meanwhile, Martha has her hands full warding off the blunt advances of her amorous cousin, Louie, a local cop who frequently brings Herb home from bar brawls instead of locking him up.
Scarcity's most notable feature is its preoccupation with inappropriate sexuality, especially incest. Not only do we have the Martha-Louie scenario, with the two of them theorizing quite openly about doing the deed (or not), but Herb often says some off-base things to his pre-teen daughter (example: "You have a cute ass for a little girl."). Then there are distant rumblings of carnal thunder between Billy and Ellen, an improper pairing if ever there was one. The problem with all of these intrigues is that Thurber never digs deep into the heart of them. Of all the people Louie might entertain having an affair with, why his own cousin? Is Herb attracted to Rachel? If so, has he already crossed the line with her? And, what does Ellen get out of any potential sexual or romantic relationship with Billy? Thurber never answers these questions, nor does she supply enough information for the audience to definitively draw their own conclusions.
The characters also blackmail each other for their own gain left and right: Billy plays on Ellen's emotional weaknesses; Martha guilts her kids; Louie goes out of his way to provide for a family that isn't his. All of these tactics are not only crystal clear to the audience, but to the other characters as well. Not the sharpest tools in the shed, this bunch, nor are they most pleasant crowd to spend two hours in a dark theatre with.
Director Jackson Gay does the best she can to modulate the script's wild tonal shifts, wringing pathos out of the dramatic sections and jaw-droppingly rude humor out of the funny parts. The seven-member cast really saves the day, though, starting with Kristen Johnston, who plays Martha with ball-busting intensity and rough, earthy sexiness. Michael T. Weiss miraculously turns Herb into a lovable rogue, which goes a long way towards explaining why Martha stays with him. As Billy, Jesse Eisenberg navigates Scarcity's trickiest role with finesse, easily straddling the line between troubled youth and disturbed headcase. As Louie and his shrill, anxious wife, Gloria, Todd Weeks and Miriam Shor respectively bring trademark conviction to a pair of thankless parts. Maggie Kiley injects a believable treacly positivity into her performance as Ellen, and Meredith Brandt proves to be as preternaturally gifted as her character, Rachel.
Scarcity supplies the kind of grit audiences have come to expect from Atlantic Theater Company, but unfortunately without the solid writerly craft they have also come to expect.