Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 15, 2020
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Adapted by Rona Munro. Directed by Richard Eyre. Scenic and costumes design by Bob Crowley. Lighting design by Peter Mumford. Sound design by John Leonard. Video design by Luke Halls. Cast: Laura Linney.
This is true despite the quality of the bestselling source material, and it is true despite the usually commanding presence of four-time Tony nominee (most recently for the 2017 revival of The Little Foxes) Laura Linney.
The play, like the novel, tells of the title character's nine-week confinement in a New York City hospital, where she is being poked, prodded, and tested for a mysterious infection that has knocked her for a loop following what she had expected would be a routine appendectomy. But the illness, never identified, serves more as a framing device, a MacGuffin that permits the story to unfold around something else altogether. That would be the visit by Lucy's long-estranged mother, who shows up out of the blue and spends five days ensconced in a chair at the foot of Lucy's bed, spouting story after story of the family's impoverished life in rural Illinois. This is the life that Lucy has fled and has exchanged for a new incarnation as a writer, wife, and mother to two daughters. It's a far cry from Illinois and the unwanted recollections of a miserable upbringing.
My Name Is Lucy Barton is essentially a memory play, and perhaps we are meant to think of the mother as a figment of Lucy's fevered brain. That certainly is a valid way to look at it, especially as Laura Linney plays both roles. It is startling, at times, to follow one or the other character's steady gaze, only to discover an empty chair or an empty hospital bed at the other end. If you consider the play to be the reflection of Lucy-the-writer picking at and analyzing the scabs of her childhood, we do stumble into that first trap: egocentrism. As Lucy's mother tells story after story, it is not hard to imagine that what we are observing is the hospital-bound author working out the content and shape of her novel in her mind. It's like reading a stranger's diary without the entertaining juicy bits. With all due respect, who is Lucy that we should care enough about her to willingly listen for 90 minutes to a recapitulation of her unhappy youth?
Pitfalls two (talkiness) and three (a lack of theatricality) pretty much knock the rest of the stuffing out of the evening. Ms. Linney is a wonderful actress who is perfectly capable of commanding the attention of an audience. In addition to her Tony nomination for The Little Foxes, she was also nominated for her performances in the 2002 Broadway revival of The Crucible and in two plays by Donald Margulies, Sight Unseen and Time Stands Still. But for heaven's sake, give her something more to do than to talk to herself for an hour and a half.
Many novels have been successfully adapted to the stage. Check out To Kill A Mockingbird for a prime current example. But with My Name Is Lucy Barton, the adaptation is both too literary and too literal. One small example: Where the book incorporates the image of the Chrysler Building visible outside Lucy's hospital window as a stand-in for all that is New York City, the production of the play resorts to a series of projections of that iconic edifice, alternating with generic scenes of Midwestern farmland.
Between these images and the simple setting of the hospital room, there is little to distract from watching and listening to Ms. Linney as she leaps back and forth between the two roles. One wonders if it might have worked better if there had been two actresses playing off each other, or even if it had been performed in a smaller Off-Broadway venue. But as it stands, the production seems like a staged book-on-tape. Coincidentally, it has just been announced that the play has been recorded as an audiobook for one of the producers, Penguin Random House Audio.