Theater review by Adam Feldman
There is a profound isolation to the title character, played by Laura Linney, in the Broadway solo play My Name Is Lucy Barton. “In spite of my plenitude, I was lonely,” she confides to us. “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” Reflecting on her traumatically impoverished childhood in rural Illinois, she recalls being locked in a truck by her father, a PTSD-scarred veteran. Now, as she savors her first success as a writer in 1980s New York City, she is by herself again: hospitalized for nine weeks after complications from an appendectomy. (Her husband has a fear of visiting hospitals, but has arranged for her to have a room of her own.) Exactly what ails her is unclear even to her doctor. “I might have a blockage,” she says, and one gets the sense she is not just talking about her veins.
Some measure of emotional unblocking arrives in the unexpected form of her estranged and withholding mother, who visits her bedside for five days. This encounter forms the spine of the play, which has been faithfully adapted by Rona Munro from Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel. Lucy’s mother, who is pointedly not named, pours forth gossipy, judgmental stories about common acquaintances back home who have messed up their lives with infidelities and other failings. Lucy is grateful for the company—she identifies with the children in the sculpture of the cannibal Ugolino at the Metropolitan Museum, who offer themselves up to be devoured by their starving parent—but the most significant thing in their exchanges is what they don’t say.
Linney comes most alive when she’s inhabiting Lucy’s mother, pushing her voice into a nasal Midwestern bark and delivering juicy storytelling monologues. It’s when she is narrating as Lucy that the play runs into trouble. Writing and reading are solitary events; public performance is not, and the literary qualities of the text, though often lovely, prove an obstacle: The very fine Linney works hard to suggest an interior struggle behind the smooth, polished reticence of the words—at several points, she verges on tears—yet it is hard to shake the sense that Lucy is writing for us, not speaking to us. My Name Is Lucy Barton is being produced in association with Penguin Random House Audio, which will release a recording of it early next month. That might be the show’s ideal form. In the 650-seat Friedman Theatre, it feels neither like a novel nor quite like a fully realized play. What it feels like is a live performance of an audiobook.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By Rona Munro. Directed by Richard Eyre. With Laura Linney. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.