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The 55-year-old title character of Linda would seem to have it all. As she puts it more than once: “I’m an award-winning businesswoman. I’m happily married with two beautiful daughters and I still fit in the same size 10 dress suit I did 15 years ago.” But during the course of this new work by British playwright Penelope Skinner (The Village Bike, The Ruins of Civilization), her life begins to unravel. Watching it happen is sometime sad, sometimes funny and always wildly entertaining.
That she’s played by Janie Dee only seals the deal. This hugely talented, Olivier Award-winning British actress has appeared on our shores only once before — 17 years ago with the same company, Manhattan Theatre Club, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential — and she’s been sorely missed. Her dazzling performance in this work, which premiered in 2015 at London’s Royal Court Theatre (with Norma Dumezweni in the role, stepping in at short notice after Kim Cattrall had to withdraw for health reasons), is nothing less than a tour-de-force.
When we first see Linda, she’s presenting her marketing strategy for a new anti-aging cream to her colleagues at the beauty products company where she works. Her radical plan involves pitching the product to — gasp — women over 50, whom she considers a neglected demographic. “Helen Mirren is the only older woman still allowed to exist,” she points out.
Unfortunately for Linda, the plan doesn’t go over well with the company’s head, Dave (John C. Vennema), who wants to position the product to all women, including those in their twenties and thirties. He puts 25-year-old new hire Amy (Molly Griggs), “a fresh voice,” in charge of the ad campaign. “I will honor your legacy, I promise,” the scheming younger woman tells Linda.
That’s just the start of Linda’s problems. Her marriage to her teacher husband Neil (Donald Sage Mackay) proves less happy than she thought when she discovers his affair with a decades-younger singer (Meghann Fahy) in his rock band. Her oldest daughter Alice (Jennifer Ikeda), having dropped out of the work force, is still traumatized by an incident that occurred at university years earlier and wears only a skunk onesie. Teenage daughter Bridget (Molly Ranson), fixated on her upcoming drama school audition, will only consider doing a monologue written for a male character because she thinks that there are no good parts for women.
“I used to be the protagonist of my life,” Linda says at one point. But she doesn’t go down without a fight, even as her career becomes threatened by the leak of a photo taken of her in post-coital bliss after an impulsive workplace dalliance with a young temp employee (Maurice Jones).
For all its provocative points about the daunting obstacles faced by older women, the play — performed on an impressive, ever-revolving set designed by Walt Spangler — proves too convoluted and overstuffed for its own good. Skinner throws in so many subplots and character machinations that the work frequently loses focus. While the attempt to give depth to minor characters is admirable — even the husband’s younger lover proves more complicated and sympathetic than she initially seems — the thematic sprawl becomes detrimental. And such stylistic touches as the howling storm taking place during a key moment in Linda’s life — the allusion to King Lear is unmistakable — feel grafted on rather than organic.
Still, the writing is consistently sharp and insightful, and, under the skillful direction of Lynne Meadow, the talented cast, especially Ikeda as the troubled daughter, makes the most of it. In the end, however, the evening truly belongs to Dee, whose fierce, funny and sexy Linda is a complicated heroine to whom women of all ages will have no trouble relating.
Venue: NY City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Janie Dee, Meghann Fahy, Molly Griggs, Jennifer Ikeda, Maurice Jones, Donald Sage Mackay, Molly Ranson, John C. Vennema
Playwright: Penelope Skinner
Director: Lynne Meadow
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Music & sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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