Of all the questions flooding through a mutinous brain during My Name Is Lucy Barton, “How did we get here?” has the most obvious answer. Everything about programming the one-woman performance in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre seems canny. Recent figures tell us that 68 percent of Broadway audiences are women. The average age is 42. And what do 40-muffled-sound-year-old women want? We want rueful stories about mothers and daughters! We want Elizabeth Strout novels! We want Laura Linney! Every Venn-diagram circle about a certain kind of woman — the sort that subscribes to nonprofit theaters, specifically — overlaps in this little sliver.
Yet My Name Is Lucy Barton flops. It doesn’t flop hard — with its limited ambition, it has no height from which to fall. But it does collapse. Twenty minutes in, every card in its deck is already on the table. It has established its suppressed-tears tone, and it has assured us that there will be no writerly interventions (by adapter Rona Munro) nor staging choices (by Richard Eyre) to make the beautiful book Strout wrote into a functional theater text. What then unfolds is a dull lesson in the difference between what’s needed on the page and on the stage. Strout’s book is brief; you seem to read it in a single held breath. That particular sensation of private suspension and emotional reservation, though, requires true quiet. (Books are conspiracies between the writer and the single reader.) Theater, on the other hand, even when there’s only one woman speaking, is existentially noisy: a great big shuffling, coughing, ruminating beast is watching, and it needs to be tamed.
Lucy is in the hospital — or at least, she was in the hospital, and she is now telling the story of that time with a kind of wonder. Lucy’s mother has come to sit by her bedside for several days, braving New York and the estrangement that has risen up between them since Lucy left Amgash, Illinois, years ago. Despite Lucy’s obvious fragility, her mother is brusque and prickly, telling story after story about women from Amgash who have come to bad ends. Every woman who has tried to leave her small town, or fancied herself in love, or had any level of self-regard, has wound up alone, Lucy’s mother says. Yet her daughter is delighted to listen, since after a yearning, desperate, impoverished childhood, here is the intimacy that Lucy has always craved. She tries to interest her mother in her life, and she fails. She tries to get her to talk about her father’s traumatic and traumatizing behavior, and she’s rebuffed. Her doctor touches her forehead, and Lucy says she wept with gratitude at his kindness. She tells us about the “ruthlessness” with which she’s gone on to pursue a writing career, but everything — sad brown wig, sad gray cardigan, sad blue voice — insist that she’s actually as vulnerable as a kitten in the rain.
Laura Linney plays Lucy, as she did twice already at the Bridge Theatre in London. There, her performance and Eyre’s production were wildly acclaimed, though neither can have been much different from the gelid work here. Local tastes vary, audiences vary, and one-person performance relies very heavily on the relationship between speaker and listener. Perhaps that’s it. Or is it that the Friedman is a large, deep house, with stacks of balconies that rise well up and back from the stage? Maybe the Bridge Theatre, with its deeper thrust and closer galleries, made a snugger venue for this very small piece. Its effectiveness might depend on our being closer.
From page one, it’s immediately obvious why Strout’s novel tempted producer Nicholas Hytner into commissioning the adaptation — it’s in the first person, as though Strout’s writing a monologue, and she locates much of the book in a single place. “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks,” she begins, and I’m sure that visions of a unit set with a hospital bed in it danced in everybody’s heads. In fact, the ugly projection-dependent setting by Bob Crowley, one of the most brilliant maximalists in the business, speaks to the way the creative-team members are working against their strengths. Linney, with her calm brow and pleading eyes, is tremendous at playing either innocent or sly (she was both in The Little Foxes), but here she’s only glum. Near the end, when she says the simple title line — she’s bravely glum.
It’s this sameness that’s the show-killer. Dramatic mechanics are made to be tampered with — have at it! — but you must have at least one of the following engines to drive an engaging solo performance: surprise, persuasion, revelation, humor, action, change, seduction, or suspense. Munro and Eyre and Linney are reverential about keeping to the letter of Strout’s book, which, in the paradoxical way of failed adaptations, means that they miss the point. Strout’s book is atmospheric, full of silence and self-questioning. Loving gestures are guessed at and hoped for but never quite made; it vibrates with things left undone. Yet this immensely static production uses the same words to be plodding, expository, clear.
In the novel, the narrator, an author herself, watches another writer speak. By this point in the book, we’re several meta-levels down. The plot tempts us into believing that we’re reading a roman à clef: Lucy’s adult life chimes with Strout’s own, from her nickname (Wizzle) to the rough outlines of her career and first marriage. The seeming difference, though, is a backstory of horrifying privation, poverty, and abuse. There’s a dark fantasy unwinding in the book: Could the “current” Strout ever have emerged from this other, darker life? In the novel, Lucy meets an author called Sarah Payne, watches her speak, and goes to her workshop. Payne, with that evocative last name, seems to be a reflection of a later stage in the writer’s life — easily exhausted but full of wisdom about authorship and its mission. “It’s not my job to make readers know what’s a narrative voice and not the private view of the author,” Payne says. Oh, what challenge and warning is in that line!
This push me, pull you of reality and invention is gone in Munro’s adaptation, though she’s careful to leave much of the language intact. It’s not really her fault: She slices out some characters in order to emphasize the maternal relationship, but that’s not what robs the play of its slipperiness. With the book in our hands, we know we’re in contact with the author. Put it all on a stage, put it in an actor’s mouth, and that electrical connection is cut, leaving only a woman telling a sorrowful story about an interlude. At least the show offers the occasion for a lot of productive thinking. What makes something adaptable? What commands our interest? How do we respond to the single body onstage? If you can’t make it to Broadway for this show that I’m not recommending, you can rest assured that in February, the production will be released as a recording by Penguin Random House Audio. You …could also just get the existing audiobook instead of the audio–dramatic adaptation. But perhaps infinite recursion is your thing? Your name might be Lucy Barton too.
*This article appears in the January 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!