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Theatre in Review: Lucy (Minetta Lane Theatre)

Lynn Collins, Brooke Bloom. Photo: Joan Marcus

If nothing else, Lucy, a new psychological thriller, will provide comfort, even validation, for the childless. In playwright Erica Schmidt's view, the business of raising kids is tantamount to living in a war zone packed with emotional land mines. Especially fraught is the search for good help: Even the borderline-OCD Mary, Schmidt's protagonist -- despite her intensive screening of potential employees -- can open the door to a kooky, narcissistic free spirit with the power to destabilize entire lives.

Mary, a single mother -- she has a toddler (the title character) in the bedroom and another one on the way -- works as a radiologist, a demanding job with long and shifting hours. Worried about the pressures of two kids, she hires Ashling, who, at a surprisingly youthful 58, comes with glowing recommendations from former clients. In Kaye Voyce's clever costume design, the women are a study in contrast: Mary favors tailored pants-and-tops ensembles in black or white, while Ashling is dressed like a hippie-era earth mother, swathed in layers of flowery, colorful fabrics. Mary is tense, unsure of herself, rigid about schedules; Ashling is warm, improvisational, unwilling to sweat the details. Maybe the contrast between them is fruitful?

Maybe not. Alarm bells are heard, however faintly, when Ashling, a self-described "baby whisperer," talks about her method of "co-parenting." There's also the time she was fired, allegedly for wearing her employer's clothes, but that gets explained away, leaving only the faintest residue of dread. And, anyway, Mary, about a week out from giving birth, isn't in a good way. Of little Lucy, she says, "I never felt anger in my life until I had her -- honestly -- not that gut-punch, out-of-nowhere scream at the top of your voice rage? She brings that out in me." So wrapped up is Mary in making this confession that she doesn't immediately notice that Ashling, smiling into the middle distance, isn't listening.

That moment is a prophecy of the chaos to come. Ashling blithely plays lip service to -- then ignores-- Mary's wishes, turning the apartment into her playpen and lavishing attention on new baby Max while engaging in icy battles with Lucy. Ashling's "co-parenting" style involves shattering Mary's boundaries by lavishing gifts on the kids and replacing her at the school's "Mom's Night." An ill-timed anecdote about Max repeatedly hitting his head is not a confidence-builder. At the same time, the self-doubting, stressed-out Mary finds herself increasingly dependent on Ashling's help; she is also hooked on the details of Ashling's sexual adventures with an unnamed rock star, even if the liaison plays havoc with her work schedule. Suddenly, Mary, who has never had a serious relationship as an adult, finds herself in a marriage made in Purgatory.

About five minutes after Lucy is over, all sorts of niggling questions are likely to emerge. Schmidt has gone to such great lengths to deprive Mary of a support system -- her parents are dead, she has no siblings, the men in her life are transitory -- that she comes across as a human question mark. Then again, many of the details on Ashling's resume are barely credible: Do fifteen-year-old boys really require a nanny? Do wealthy families hire a quartet of nannies for four children? (I may not be keeping up with the plutocracy, but still.) Equally unconvincing is an out-of-left-field shocker delivered at the eleventh hour, followed by a surprisingly melodramatic gesture from Mary. Throughout the evening, the contrivances pile up.

But if Schmidt's dramaturgy is often shaky, her direction is taut and her stars make a nervy, gripping pair of combatants. As Mary, Brooke Bloom unravels step by step, subtly at first, then giving way to full-throated fury. Her rage is easy to understand given Lynn Collins' knack at making Ashling equally sympathetic and deaf to the needs of others. When at last confronted with Mary's implacable disapproval, Ashling's personality structure collapses, unleashing a cascade of tears and panic until she emerges a vessel of wrath, bent on seeking satisfaction. Collins, perhaps best known for her film and television work, is quite a technician onstage as well.

It's a thin piece of writing, to be sure, but, in the hands of gifted actresses, it remains thoroughly engrossing, from the polite opening haggle over salary and insurance benefits to the final gloves-off settling of accounts. It's also fascinating for its presentation of motherhood as a largely solitary and anxiety-ridden affair; not once does Mary experience anything like joy in her kids, and, for all her sentimental extolling of the little tykes, Ashling is largely out for herself. Men, of course, are nowhere to be found. Is this the state of play in 2023? No wonder the Times is writing about the dropping birth rate.

The sleek production package includes Amy Rubin's white apartment interior, which, with its minimal furnishings, stainless-steel kitchen, and spreading water stain on the ceiling, speaks volumes about Mary. Cha See's remarkably detailed lighting design is filled with subtle color tones and carefully worked out time-of-day looks; she also goes bold, with bright colors and spinning patterns, in a sequence featuring Ashling and Lucy (the adorable Charlotte Surak) dancing and singing. Sound designer Justin Ellington makes good use of various musical selections, including Taylor Swift's "Anti-Hero," Coldplay's "The Scientist," and what sounds like a nursery arrangement of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." A slick, tense, not entirely believable but interestingly bleak piece of work, Lucy gets a major lift from its gifted cast. But after you see it, you'll probably think about getting a pet instead. --David Barbour

(9 February 2023)

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