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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 28, 2017

Janie Dee
Photo by Joan Marcus

Invisibility? I can't see it. Not that I'm contesting it's an issue for women "of a certain age"—in this case, over 50—but that Janie Dee is a woman who demands, even needs, to be seen when she's onstage. In practically any other play, this kind of scintillating star power would be an asset, elevating everything around it, no matter how mediocre. That, alas, is not the case with Linda, the new play by Penelope Skinner that just opened at City Center Stage I in a Manhattan Theatre Club production: The title character must disappear in an ultra-slow-motion dissolve right before our very eyes. But Dee will not, and you suspect cannot, let her do that.

There are, admittedly, worse problems to have. Dee, who last exploded onto these shores (and at MTC, and at this theater) in 2000 with Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential, is the embodiment of applied energy as Linda, a London career woman who's discovered she can, in fact, have it all. In showing how Linda fits in at work as the senior brand manager for the skin care company Swan, she's a swaggering picture of confidence, in utter command of her audience, her product (an age-reversing face cream), and her industry. She's won awards for her marketing campaigns, but more than that, she's raised awareness and begun to change the world through viral campaigns that show little girls just who they can, and must, be.

At home, she reigns no less supreme. Modulating her performance ever so slightly, and adopting a softer but equally intense view of her immediate surroundings, Dee transforms Linda into the uber-homemaker who knows her two daughters and her husband better than they know themselves, and runs such a tight ship that it seems to move under its own locomotion when she's not there. It's obvious how the professional ladder-climber and the personal conquering hero come from the same place, but not how she manages to make each apparently the only life she lives. Dee weaves exactly the magic that characterizes the most successful figures in business by making the unthinkable so natural that you can't imagine it any other way.

It's all destined to go wrong, of course, and it does. Linda's boss, Dave (John C. Vennema), wants to court a much younger demographic, and has chosen the vapid marketing scheme of a 25-year-old upstart, Amy (Molly Griggs), to spearhead it. Outraged and ill as a result of this betrayal, Linda goes home to find another one: her husband Neil (Donald Sage Mackay) sleeping with Stevie (Meghann Fahy), a nubile member of the band he formed to deal with his midlife crisis.

As Linda's perfect reality starts to crack from two sides at once, her sanity and resolve begin to melt into nothingness as well, and she must hold together what remnants she can if she's going to mend and rebuild them, and, hopefully, make them stronger. If anything, Dee gets even better when Linda is propelled into this mysterious new territory and must forge a path of the kind she was sure she was done with. It's heartbreaking, yes, but also inspirational, because you know that these are two women who will never, ever let you down.

John C. Vennema and Janie Dee
Photo by Joan Marcus

They don't. That much, however, cannot be said of anything else. For as defiantly as Skinner (The Village Bike) has written her main character, she hasn't displayed an equivalent interest in making those around her even half as real. One daughter, Bridget (Molly Ranson), is an obsequious hanger-on. The other, Alice (Jennifer Ikeda), is a walking and talking bad mood, who's confined herself to a onesie decorated to make her look like a skunk. Stevie is a distant-eyed bubblehead. And these are the ones intended to arouse some sympathy. Neil is a clueless, insensitive milquetoast whose life is premised on knowing he's not good enough to be in Linda's shadow. And Dave is a mansplaining misogynist who pretends to take Linda seriously, but of course doesn't now that there are younger things to listen to.

The point beneath all this is strong: Linda succumbs to the social pressures she's spent her career trying to reverse, and comes to represent exactly the problems the other women around her are rebelling against. (Alice is wearing the onesie because she wants to be invisible, Bridget wants to break down barriers but lacks the tools or the creativity, and so on.) But by stacking the deck so much, Skinner undermines her own efforts. What happens to Linda is impossible to accept because the men around her are so sneering in their construction, and because the paint-by-numbers nature of Linda's travails is so profound.

The myriad clichés and cringeworthy dialogue are bad enough. (Dave actually says to Linda at one point, "You don’t work in this industry as long as I have and not get to know a little bit about women. Right? I know what you girls are like.") But the facile plotting may be even worse, with story threads and major events so predictable they may as well be outlined in neon; it's not enough, for example, that both Linda and Alice fall prey to revenge tactics—they must suffer in exactly the same way, about exactly the same thing, from exactly the same source. So much of the play is like that, and so many of its key themes baldly stated (or shouted) that there's no room for surprise or adventure beyond Dee's portrayal.

Director Lynne Meadow might have been able to mitigate this, but she hasn't; There's a gorgeous revolving set (designed by Walt Spangler and lighted by Jason Lyons) that captures the style and the urgency of the high life, and the tack-smart costumes (Jennifer von Mayrhauser) could not be more right. But aside from Dee, the only realistic performance comes from Maurice Jones, who plays a handsome, philosophy-spouting office assistant. (Betcha can't guess why he's so important.) The other actors settle for caricature, if to varying degrees of broadness; Skinner hasn't written people, so how can they play them? The mugging from everyone else is ancient long before the two-hour-20-minute running time has concluded. And, for that matter, an eternity before Linda does.

Right up to the very end, you can't pry your eyes away from her, and you can't take your mind off of her. Dee makes her so unique, in her highest and lowest moments alike, that there's no way you can believe that she genuinely fears ending up on society's ash heap. But Dee is so good that it would probably be easier to suspend your disbelief about that if you didn't have to about the rest of the world of Linda, too.

Through April 2
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
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