EmptyLinda Gross Theater, Atlantic Mainstage, New York
Through Oct. 14
Every American playwright is apparently destined to write at least one dysfunctional-family drama. Lucy Thurber's recent contribution to the genre, the world premiere of "Scarcity" off-Broadway, is sometimes adept and frequently overwrought. But its main drawback is that we have seen it all before.
Movie buffs familiar with "The Corn Is Green" will recognize the outline of Thurber's plot. Set in a dilapidated house in present-day rural Massachusetts, "Scarcity" focuses on an impoverished, seriously troubled family. Martha (Kristen Johnston) barely supports her alcoholic husband, Herb (Michael T. Weiss), their precocious 11-year-old daughter, Rachel (Meredith Brandt), and their gifted but violent 16-year-old son, Billy (Jesse Eisenberg). Fearing that he will do something horrific if he doesn't get out of the house, Billy persuades his attractive, well-connected high school teacher (Maggie Kiley) to help him win a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school.
There is fodder enough here for a realistic drama about a struggling household. But Thurber, as though tapping into "Law & Order: SVU," adds more. The dialogue and the action suggest that Herb molests his daughter, or at least behaves inappropriately toward her, and that Martha sometimes abuses Rachel physically. An unhappily married local cop (Todd Weeks) helps the family out in the hope that he can bed Martha. The teacher tolerates, perhaps even welcomes, Billy's sadistic treatment.
To Thurber's credit, she knows how to write the kind of well-shaped scene that involves numerous characters and shifting subtext -- no small talent in this age of meager stage dialogue and oh-so-brief scenes. But why must each character have a dysfunctional tic or be the victim of someone else's? It's the kind of branding we associate with TV, which, frankly, is better at it.
Smart direction from Jackson Gay mines Thurber's undercurrents, and on designer Walt Spangler's purposely run-down set, Gay has a way of making complicated staging look easy. This is a family in which Mom and Dad fight furiously in the living room while the kids listen from the kitchen.
The cast is excellent, but the husky-voiced Johnston -- who won an Emmy for her comedic work on NBC's "3rd Rock From the Sun" -- is particularly fine, her Martha alternately kind and cruel. Eleven-year-old Brandt exudes both vulnerability and incipient toughness in the role of Rachel, and Eisenberg ("The Squid and the Whale") makes Billy hover alarmingly on the edge of rage, as he tries to survive in a world that is truly "scar city."
Presented by the Atlantic Theater Co.
Playwright: Lucy Thurber
Director: Jackson Gay
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designer: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Sound designer: Daniel Baker
Original music by: Jason Mills
Rachel: Meredith Brandt
Martha: Kristen Johnston
Louie: Todd Weeks
Herb: Michael T. Weiss
Billy: Jesse Eisenberg
Ellen: Maggie Kiley
Gloria: Miriam Shor