My Name Is Lucy Barton, declares Manhattan Theatre Club’s latest prestige import from London, to which the only sensible answer is, “And why should I care?” Over the next 90 minutes, the sparkling Laura Linney, delivering a script by Rona Munro based on the 2016 bestselling novel by Elizabeth Strout, labors mightily to dispel such apathy. Granted, it’s hard to resist Linney’s charms; the stage veteran turns in such fresh, luminous performances. Recall her gleefully bitchy Regina in 2016’s The Little Foxes in this very same theater (the Samuel J. Friedman). So you arrive brimming with positivity and confidence. Sadly, that confidence ebbs slowly as this inert monologue chugs along, telling a familiar and stiffly novelistic tale of class trauma passed from mothers to daughters down the years.
Bob Crowley’s set, surrounded by portions of the audience, is a bare-bones hospital room, with a large window that affords an impressive view of the Chrysler Building (video design by Luke Halls). Linney’s Lucy tells us right away that this is the story of a nine-week stay in the hospital during which – after an appendix came out – she languished from a mysterious, undiagnosed illness. To get her through this scary ordeal, Lucy had an extraordinarily sensitive doctor, a dutiful husband and two loving daughters, and she had her mother. Yes, one day, Lucy says, her flinty, squinty-eyed mother from rural Illinois showed up at the foot of her bed. A ministering angel or a succubus, preying on the bedridden and defenseless? She turns out to be a bit of both.
The skillful Linney makes swift transitions from Lucy’s well-spoken, genteel tones to her mother’s harsh braying, with its flat, Midwestern "A"s and reflexive, scornful delight in others’ misfortunes. Although Lucy seems for all the world to be a sophisticated, cultured urbanite (she lives in the West Village and will soon have a novel published), the truth is, she was raised in abject poverty, with an emotionally abusive mother and a father suffering from PTSD after fighting in World War II. As her mother sits by her bed, telling stories from the past or debriefing her daughter on the latest news back home, we come to realize that the visitation is a kind of dual exorcism. Lucy’s mother has come to purge her guilt in an empty act of maternal concern, and Lucy must take the poison of her mother’s bottomless contempt and misery in order to inoculate herself for the rest of her life. For anyone who grew up poor or in a small town, and escaped to the city, there are vivid, highly relatable passages. After she’s had an argument with her mother, Lucy’s doctor appears at the door. He immediately senses something amiss. That moment, Lucy says, “made me recall how in my youth there were times that I wanted desperately to run to a stranger when we went into town and say, ‘You need to help me, please, please, can you please get me out of there, bad things are going on.’ And yet I never did, of course.” Munro/Strout are very eloquent with the language of emotional cruelty and privation.
Derived as it is from a novel, and a backward-glancing, memory-haunted one at that, My Name Is Lucy Barton suffers from a certain inertia and passivity that makes for dull theater. Indeed, plot, action and conflict are always tricky elements to incorporate into a monologue, which depends on that special agreement between solo actor and audience: I’ll tell you a story and you’ll stop expecting someone else to enter the room. Reading a 200-page book in the comfort of your home, you have enough fictional padding to ignore the fact that Strout crams in evocations of the Holocaust, the AIDS epidemic and September 11 for effect, or that, as an author narrating her own biographical tale, she indulges in much shop talk about the Craft. In a novel, you just flow with it. But compressed into 90 minutes of stage time, the literary self-consciousness and thematic billboarding (Poverty! Homophobia! Sexual Abuse!) start to feel overdetermined and schematic, no matter how warmly and elegantly Richard Eyre directs his star. The last ten-or-so minutes are particularly packed with major life events – deaths, infidelity, divorce – a common ailment in plays and novels called Multiple Ending Syndrome. Unlike the phantom sickness in My Name Is Lucy Barton, there is a treatment for MES: It’s called rewrites, or fully dramatizing the source.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.