Off Broadway Reviews
If so, there's none present in Lucy Thurber's new play Stay at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Here, literary wunderkinds don't get off easy - they're 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 Thurber's play that cuts right to the core of the nature of the artistic soul. The other half might as well be superglued to a therapist's couch.
But one thing at a time. Where Stay begins is with Rachel Lawrence (Maggie Siff), a new college professor and acclaimed novelist who's at last met her match in Julia (Jess Wexler), a student whose knack for extrasensory storytelling eerily mirrors her own. Equally frightening is Julia's encyclopedic knowledge of Rachel's 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 Rachel's apartment of a live-in imaginary friend, a mischievous girl in white (Jenny Maguire), further highlights that we're 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. It's when it sacrifices its populist-thriller leanings for harder-edged snob appeal that it loses the innocence that gives it its more compelling overtones.
It doesn't take Rachel long to realize that their father's routine beatings, which imbued Billy with his bitter predilections and dislodged her own active imagination, also infects her. It doesn't take much longer for the play to flop from a fantastical fable about the complex workings of the writer's mind to a grim deconstruction of the dangers of abuse. Though Thurber's conception of the former feels fresh with these characters and Jackson Gay's lighthearted direction, the latter is never a completely organic extension of the repressed concerns the relentless Julia forces to the forefront of Rachel's consciousness.
Sadoski is most effective at embodying both the comical before and the self-searching after, and you believe, from Billy's drive to succeed to his raging libido and his taste for violence, that he's under the grip of forces he can't 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 it's difficult to accept her as the smug savant she plays; Sam Rosen brings too much overeager energy to Julia's awestruck left-behind boyfriend.
Reigning over the playpen of Erik Flatmo's 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 can't 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 she's 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.