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Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Jenny Maguire and Maggie Siff
Photo by Sandra Coudert

Inspiration can be both a writerís stock in trade and her own individually apportioned Black Tuesday; all that matters is she be able to tell the two apart, though whether anyone else can is another matter altogether. But do even the brilliant deserve some slack from those of us on the outside who spend our lives wondering how any mere human being can create a great work of art?

If so, thereís none present in Lucy Thurberís new play Stay at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Here, literary wunderkinds donít get off easy - theyíre forever chained to the responsibilities their uniqueness demands. The myriad ways in which an ostensibly liberating gift becomes an unbreakable shackle are what drives the half of Thurberís play that cuts right to the core of the nature of the artistic soul. The other half might as well be superglued to a therapistís couch.

But one thing at a time. Where Stay begins is with Rachel Lawrence (Maggie Siff), a new college professor and acclaimed novelist whoís at last met her match in Julia (Jess Wexler), a student whose knack for extrasensory storytelling eerily mirrors her own. Equally frightening is Juliaís encyclopedic knowledge of Rachelís life and career, which goes beyond a casual reading of newspaper articles and magazine profiles and into an intimately obsessive need to understand her from the inside out.

As their lessons progress, it becomes clear that the women share a bond beyond their talent: The method by which they devise their stories - which is, shall we say, highly dependent on other people - is practically identical. (To divulge more would deprive the play of some of its more intriguing surprises.) The presence in Rachelís apartment of a live-in imaginary friend, a mischievous girl in white (Jenny Maguire), further highlights that weíre dealing with people whose minds are made of stronger, stranger stuff than is the norm.

As long as Thurber sticks with this magical little story, in which the long-tortured Rachel grooms her suffering student into someone ready to fulfill her obligations to the world, Stay stays a teasingly enjoyable popcorn-flick of a play. Itís when it sacrifices its populist-thriller leanings for harder-edged snob appeal that it loses the innocence that gives it its more compelling overtones.

Jess Weixler, Sam Rosen, and Maggie Siff
Photo by Sandra Coudert

Key to this uncomfortable transition is Rachelís brother Billy (Thomas Sadoski), a lawyer from the city who was fired from his fast-track job for seducing and later striking the companyís buxom young secretary. For him, though, the trouble is less that he slept with the bossís daughter or even that he hit her in the first place - whatís most catastrophic is that he actually liked the look of fear that flashed across her eyes in the instant before his blow connected. One wave of his arm transformed him from man to monster.

It doesnít take Rachel long to realize that their fatherís routine beatings, which imbued Billy with his bitter predilections and dislodged her own active imagination, also infects her. It doesnít take much longer for the play to flop from a fantastical fable about the complex workings of the writerís mind to a grim deconstruction of the dangers of abuse. Though Thurberís conception of the former feels fresh with these characters and Jackson Gayís lighthearted direction, the latter is never a completely organic extension of the repressed concerns the relentless Julia forces to the forefront of Rachelís consciousness.

Sadoski is most effective at embodying both the comical before and the self-searching after, and you believe, from Billyís drive to succeed to his raging libido and his taste for violence, that heís under the grip of forces he canít understand. In contrast, Siff registers more as an overworked secretary than a tormented genius, the frequent frustration she displays never hinting at her darker, turbulent core. Weixler is perhaps too convincing as a young girl still learning to control her own powers, and itís difficult to accept her as the smug savant she plays; Sam Rosen brings too much overeager energy to Juliaís awestruck left-behind boyfriend.

Reigning over the playpen of Erik Flatmoís celestial nursery set is Maguire, who captures the right sense of otherworldliness to remain just above the earthly fray. Much of her performance involves laughing in the echoing manner redolent of a runaway glockenspiel, as if to maintain her easygoing dominance over those who canít bear the music they hear in their own heads.

But by the end of the play, when she drops all her giddy pretense and oppressively reminds Rachel of the charge to improve the world sheís begun ignoring, she becomes a forceful, frightening reminder that those we consider special are often at the sway of their own personal demons. Exploring the specific circumstances under which those demons were born of pain, however, is considerably less enlightening; both Rachel and Thurber have made Advanced Creative Writing far more interesting than Psychology 101.

Through April 15
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix