Review: Laura Linney in “My Name is Lucy Barton”

Elizabeth Strout’s novels are generally beloved, as is Laura Linney, so combining the two was a logical choice for adapter Rona Munro and director Richard Eyre. However, the production of “My Name is Lucy Barton” at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre (a transfer from London), seems to be lacking. It has several great elements, including an emotional story and a phenomenal actress, and yet it never really soars.

Munro’s adaptation is a rather straightforward translation of the novel, which was written in first person and almost begging to become a monologue. In it, Lucy tells about a recent extended stay she had in a hospital and an unexpected visit she had from her estranged mother. Throughout the hour and half, Lucy’s narrative fades through various times in her life, gently moving from the strained hospital conversations with her mom to her childhood of poverty and abuse. The ebb and flow of these temporal shifts feel like waves moving us through Lucy’s life. That being said, the way her narrative spirals around memories feels more literary than dramatic.

The non-linear nature of this piece makes it come across almost as the forgotten third portion of last season’s “Sea Wall / A Life,” which featured two actors each telling a one-act story about their life, often in a ways that eschew traditional timelines. In “Sea Wall,” “A Life,” and “My Name is Lucy Barton” the audience is teased with small bits of information that we must piece together as the narrators tell their story less as a coherent whole and more as a loose collections of memories, where they flit and jump around based on the path of their reverie.

Although the comparison is certainly apt, “My Name is Lucy Barton” is not nearly as successful as last season’s similar iteration. Part of what made “Sea Wall / A Life” so moving was its stripped back simplicity. In an unexpected and bizarre twist, “My Name is Lucy Barton” is over designed and under-directed. The set by Bob Crowley logically featured a hospital bed but was backed by three projection screens that featured cheesy versions of a hospital window view of the New York City skyline, a corn field, a West Village street, a tree, and other cliche, barely-better-than-clip-art images/videos that coincided with the narrative (Luke Halls designed the trite videos). The lights by Peter Mumford left Linney in the dark, minimally lit at times, which in a one woman show all about her sadness was a grave mistake. A show this raw did not need such dramatic framing and probably could have been done with no set or lights at all.

In addition to the design, it was the writing that made this piece fail to achieve the storytelling standard set by “Sea Wall / A Life.” Munro’s adaptation does not master the textual experimentation and never manages to fine tune the pathos enough. Lucy’s story has an almost flat tone throughout, illustrated by Laura Linney’s near-constant quiet crying for the duration of the piece. She never gets to a sob but also never really smiles, she just remains with a perpetual single tear streaking down her cheek.

If I may allow myself to linger on these tears, the way Linney navigates her character’s emotional contours and manages to stay in control of the production while crying for almost the entire hour and half is certainly commendable. She has mastered the type of tears that are unique to middle aged moms telling stories that they didn’t expect would make them emotional, those quiet, “I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself” tears. Strout’s novel is all about silences and gaps and what Lucy doesn’t tell us, and Linney has a great command on her character, even despite these holes and the flat nature of the adaptation.

Linney is one of those actresses who can handle anything, and will always be the best part of the show, and this is certainly the case for “My Name is Lucy Barton.” Although the play itself might not be anything special, Laura Linney is always worth seeing, and here she gives another star performance, mining the best out of an otherwise meh production.

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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