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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Cristin Milioti and Charlayne Woodard.
Photo by Erin Baiano.

Have you ever noticed that if you say a word enough times in succession, it becomes more akin to meaningless sounds than identifiable language? This phenomenon occurs by about the halfway point of the first act of David Adjmi's new play Stunning, which Lincoln Center Theater is presenting at the Duke on 42nd Street as part of its LCT3 series. Because the play's subject is about the easy confusion of appearance and identity, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But because what's repeated ad nauseam is the title word, the swath of empty compliments ensures that eventually you stop believing it whenever you hear it. The play itself quickly becomes gleamingly dull for just the same reason.

Despite its story about the conflation of race, religion, and sexuality in modern-day Brooklyn, this plodding and pretentious play, which has been sharply directed by Anne Kauffman and is flaccidly acted by an unruly cast of six, is most useful as an object lesson for playwrights. If you're tempted to inject every conceivable thing you care about into your play, it screams continually over its interminable running time of two hours and 20 minutes, don't. Author and audience alike will benefit more from a tight collection of fully realized concepts than a murky smorgasbord.

Yet that's exactly how Stunning plays. The opening scene, set at a table in a trendy eatery, is a rapid-fire girl-talk confab focusing on the usual concerns: family, men, children, you know the drill. Afterwards, Adjmi plunges into the life of one of the women, Lily Schwecky (Cristin Milioti), a 16-year-old Syrian-American Jew who's married to the 40-something entrepreneur, Ike (Danny Mastrogiorgio). Right now, Lily is intent on hiring a maid, and has decided on Blanche Nesbitt (Charlayne Woodard), a 43-year-old who claims to speak four languages and have a PhD in semiotics. The only problem? "I thought you would be Porto-Rican!", Lily cries, outraged that the black Blanche isn't like every other maid she's ever had. That's easy enough to solve: Lily just decides to call her Anna Maria.

More difficult for her to overcome is the intimate relationship that forms between the two. It's obvious from the outset that Lily and Ike are an uneasy pairing, but it takes Lily longer to realize that a woman is what's missing from her life. As a mother, yes, and one of Lily's favorite activities is lying across Blanche's lap and listening to her read Keats. But she needs a woman for other reasons, too, and those culminate in an eye-poppingly unsurprising first-act finale that threatens to rip apart the foundations of Lily's cultural and religious upbringing.

Cristin Milioti and Danny Mastrogiorgio.
Photo by Erin Baiano.

Or at least that's Adjmi's intent: to show the dangers of forcing immature women on an unforgiving world without first preparing them for its nuances. The Syrian-American angle is unusual, and blended as it is with an examination of traditionally oriented Jews in a swirlingly modern society, it creates a narrative backdrop of very rare vintage. But the mere fact of this idea's existence is not sufficient for justifying it as a play. That requires other, harder work that Adjmi has simply not done.

Instead, everything feels like a mishmash of an avant-garde sitcom pilot determined to both make you laugh and make you think it doesn't want you to. The writing and acting are burlesque comedy act one moment, and Eugene O'Neill epic tragedy the next. Leaden symbolism is everywhere; Lily and Ike demanding Blanche paint the walls of their apartment white in her spare time, for example, can end in only so many ways. The second half of the evening (the three-act play is presented with only one intermission) is full of damning revelations substituting for plot development and popcorn-popper paced scenes substituting for story structure, but the pieces never come together.

True, with this cast, that would be challenging in any event. Milioti is truly terrible, her vision of the tortured Lily never extending beyond a limp impersonation of early-to-mid-career Fran Drescher - including and especially the voice - and punctuated with raccoon-in-the-headlights eyes and sniveling mannerisms that ill-equipped too-old actors frequently use to mimic youth. Woodard tries to maintain her dignity as Blanche, but her role's awkward lines and unconvincing secrets make it hard for her to come across as sandpaper-on-the-skin irritating. Mastrogiorgio is in full-on one-dimensional bad-guy mode - boring, but at least in tune with the writing. Jeanine Serralles as Lily's sister, Steven Rattazzi as her husband, and Sas Goldberg as a chatty friend give performances best forgotten in roles Adjmi apparently forgot to write.

The acting, however, is largely immaterial for a play that ultimately embraces exactly what it attempts to mock: style in lieu of substance. Kauffman stages everything with adroit unshakability, which at least grants the evening the imprimatur of seriousness. And David Korins's ultra-mod set, lit by Japhy Weideman with piercing neon-like accents, so sparkles that it essentially lives up to the title of the play. Nothing else even remotely comes close.

Through June 27
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
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