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Linney shines in one-woman play


Audiences aren’t showing up at “My Name Is Lucy Barton” for Lucy — they’re coming for Linney.

That’s Laura Linney, the venerable actress, who stars in the one-woman play, adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel, that opened on Broadway Wednesday night. It’s a skilled performance that employs the actress’s signature move: commanding the stage while remaining genteel and dignified.

Linney hardly ever yells, exuding an athlete’s confidence and a therapist’s wisdom with total ease. She’s so authoritative and generous, you leave the theater awaiting your PBS tote bag in the mail.

Rona Munro’s drama about a hospitalized writer who is reunited with her estranged mom is almost too well-suited to Linney, like the perfect black turtleneck for someone who only ever wears black turtlenecks. Although the play tackles tough issues such as military post-traumatic stress disorder, child abuse and AIDS, it’s a stubbornly polite piece of writing. You want fireworks, but only get a sparkler.

The play is set in 1980s New York, when Lucy, a West Village writer who dresses like a yogi, is stricken with a mystery illness and hospitalized for nine weeks. Her mother, who she hasn’t seen in years, then unexpectedly arrives from western Illinois, ready to gossip and whine about her neighbors back home. But the visit dredges up Lucy’s horrible childhood of being abused by her military father and sequestered from society in a distant cornfield.

Laura Linney in "My Name Is Lucy Barton."

Linney plays both roles, and her transformation from stricken daughter into a cold mom, who hides her feelings with Midwestern muscle, is simple but powerful. The actress sits in a corner chair, and adds just a splash of acid to her voice — a smart contrast to the more touchy-feely Lucy. Director Richard Eyre deftly navigates these moments, and the transition is velvet smooth.

The dialogue, not so much. Given that the play is an adaptation of a novel, which has an author as its main character, the speeches tend to be overly literary. Lucy, recalling a drive down an Illinois highway, says: “The soybeans were on one side, a sharp green, lighting up the slighting, sloping fields with their beauty.” That’s how people write, not how they talk, and the effect throughout is that Lucy is about to order a vegan matcha latte.

What redeems “Lucy Barton,” aside from Linney’s presence, is the rarely seen relationship of a mother and daughter that’s devoid of affection. Outside the theater after the show, I overheard a woman say to her friend, “My mom never told me she loved me, either.” Despite its flaws, “Lucy Barton” hits on something real.



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