Though it features a towering performance by Janie Dee in the title role, the British import "Linda" by Penelope Skinner proves too contrived to be credible.
The play, by British playwright Penelope Skinner (The Village Bike), opens with Linda (British stage star Janie Dee), an award-winning executive at the Swan Beauty Corporation, delivering a pitch for a new “anti-ageing” cream. Women “in the fifty plus age group” are passed over not only by men’s glances in the street, but also by marketing campaigns, says Linda, during a power-point presentation, before adding that Helen Mirren is “the only older woman still allowed to exist” in commercials.
Linda’s new product aims to celebrate middle-aged women. And why not? The highly successful Linda, who is herself 55, has two daughters, a husband, Neil (Donald Sage Mackay), who admires her, a boss, Dave (John C. Vennema), who respects her–and she’s the envy of Amy (Molly Griggs), a new employee at Swan, who is less than half Linda’s age.
Though there’s a brief or transitional moment with a singer we have yet to meet, the second real scene is set in Linda’s smart, contemporary kitchen-cum-dining-room, where we’re introduced to Neil, and their 15-year-old daughter Bridget. Neil is so fixated on his computer and smart-phone at the dining-room table that he seems oblivious to Bridget’s dilemma about wanting to audition for a school production as a male Shakespearean character: “I should just do it because that’s the new thing now. Women doing the male parts.” Bridget’s adding that Fiona–whoever that offstage character may be–“says Hamlet’s just a wankfest for boys” is an insider’s theater joke, since the great Fiona Shaw was one of the first actresses to break that barrier, when she played Richard II at London’s National Theatre in 1995 (in a production I was privileged to see, and greatly admired).
To add that Linda’s 25-year-old daughter, Alice, also makes a walk-on and silent appearance, early on–in a “onesie,” or a kind of pajamas or skunk costume (tail and all)–begins to suggest Skinner’s ambition to be writing about, and for, women of all ages. (It’s a scene or two later, before we learn that Alice is Linda’s daughter from a previous marriage.) And then there’s that singer, who we eventually learn is the 31-year-old Stevie (Meghann Fahy), who performs with Neil’s band, and with whom Neil is having an affair.
As Skinner peppers her script with a good deal of humor to tell a story that gets ever darker, her deftness for language almost makes us overlook the problems with Linda, a play that’s eventually done in by its contrivances. While the ageing Linda is concerned about becoming “invisible,” that’s exactly what Alice claims she wants to be–to ward off any unwanted leers or attention. The fact that Amy is exactly Alice’s age, hints at an even more far-fetched coincidence. And an otherwise superfluous character–Luke (Maurice Jones), a “temp” at Swan–makes it clear that both Amy and Luke were a playwright’s device to make some very outrageous connections, which remind us that fiction, after all, can sometimes be stranger than truth.
A revolving stage permits set designer Walt Spangler to depict, with dead-on realism and dispatch, not only Linda’s home–including an upstairs bedroom, which her daughters share–but also various offices at Swan Corporation, among numerous other sites. After a certain point, the dizzying, rotating stage becomes akin to a swirling merry-go-round, as director Lynne Meadow has it turning and turning, with different characters walking on and off, and through different doors, without any dialogue whatsoever, in subdued but effective lighting by Jason Lyons. It all becomes part of the accelerating gallop of the play itself, which ultimately spins out of control, as Linda learns that she’s lost her–well, let’s just say, in the end, everything.
The final scene, on the other hand, backs up ten years to offer us Linda’s acceptance speech for a “Marketing Award,” which she won for her “True Beauty” campaign for Swan products. While claiming that the award is a “sign” or a “symbol” that “things are finally getting better” for women of all ages, it’s in sharp contrast with the depths to which Linda’s creator has plunged her leading character during the subsequent decade–or all during the more limited course of the play, actually. It only emphasizes how hard-hitting, and without nuance, Skinner’s designs have been. Perhaps what’s most surprising about Linda is that, given its focus on feminism, and given the intelligence of the language, it offers no suggestions for any positive actions to relieve the inherent problems.
As Linda, Janie Dee’s fiercely controlled performance achieves its magisterial height at the end of Act I, when Linda essentially has a very public breakdown–even if it’s presented as an aggressive attack: Linda goes off book, so to speak, during yet another planned presentation for Swan products, while failing to respond to the entreaties of her sexist boss, Dave, to get back on track. Linda has, after all, only recently learned about her husband’s affair, as well as begun to realize that Amy has been positioned to take over her own job.
Although Linda features a relatively large cast, which is rare by today’s Off-Broadway standards, no member can be faulted for his or her performance. Nevertheless, the two other outstanding performances are given, respectively, by Jennifer Ikeda as the ultimately feisty Alice (with a hidden tragedy in her past), and Molly Ranson as the precocious Bridget–both of whom could have been star-pupils in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Linda may take on special relevance following the Trump election and all the losses to the feminist movement which it seems to portend. The play, however, fails to live up to the promises it keeps on making.
Linda (through April 2, 2017)
Manhattan Theater Club
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-397-2420 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission
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