By David Adjmi. Directed by Anne Kauffman. At The Duke Theatre. (CLOSED)
Stunning, which chronicles the faltering relationships between a fiftysomething "shady business man", his teenage bride and an African American academic-turned-maid in the Syrian Jewish community of Midwood, Brooklyn, marks up-and-coming playwright David Admji's New York debut, thanks to LCT 3. Leaving aside Matthew Murray's impassioned F+ pan, the general consensus surrounding this show is that Adjmi's play shows immense promise- particularly in its first act- but begins to deliver gradually diminishing returns in the second act. Leading the positive notices are NYPost's Elizabeth Vincentelli (who takes issue with her fellow critic's reactions to the show here) and Time Out's Adam Feldman.
(Elizabeth Vincentelli) It's hard to believe that a ticket to this wonderful show costs only $20...The tonal shifts between tension and comedy are perfectly mastered, as are the incremental changes in power among the characters. Adjmi falters only briefly, lapsing into "Law & Order: SVU" territory toward the end. It's a minor problem, however, and he has the sense not to conclude on that note. Ace downtown director Anne Kauffman pulls everything together in her most assured and visually impressive production to date.
Time Out New York A-
(Adam Feldman) Nearly everything about David Adjmi’s Stunning has an original ring to it, from the setting—Brooklyn’s insular Syrian-Jewish community—to the brassy bleat of the dialogue...Directing the play for Lincoln Center’s fledgling LCT3 wing, Anne Kauffman explores the material with her usual exceptional eye for detail. All of the production details are beautifully well-judged—especially David Korins’s mod modular set, a gorgeous analogue for the way the characters get boxed in by whiteness. Toward the end of Stunning, Adjmi slides into conventionality himself in his treatment of Blanche. But Milioti’s Lily is a striking creation: adrift in a sea of gleam and struggling to make sense of the daze of her life
The New Yorker B+
(Hilton Als) It’s impossible to dismiss it outright or to lavish praise on it...There’s so much doubling and playing on ethnic identity in Stunning that watching the play feels, at times, like overdosing on George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, with its surfeit of Yiddish and American black locutions. The melding and exchanging of identities is most successful among the three Syrian Jewish women. This is where Adjmi’s real strength lies: he understands the clannish behavior of women—the rivalries, the bullying, the identification, the rejection, and the bonding that goes on among them. ... Adjmi is not alone in his failure to lift his black woman character above the stereotypes. It’s a complex cultural problem that has for decades plagued the white intellectuals who have tried to write about race. A few have managed it: Bernard Malamud’s profound stories of the fifties and sixties vividly express the tangle of fear, attraction, and hurt that existed between urban blacks and Jews of his generation. But Adjmi, in the end, buries Blanche in folklore: a safe, albeit racist move, and one that limits him as an artist—an artist whose next project I nevertheless can’t wait to see.
(Jason Zinoman) Stunning, a stinging portrait of an insular Syrian Jewish community in contemporary Brooklyn, begins as stylized satire, moves quickly into urban fairy tale and finally emerges as a melodramatic tragedy. The shifts in tone and style present a high degree of difficulty, and while its virtuosic playwright, David Adjmi, nicely evokes an arrestingly skewed subculture onstage, he never makes us believe in the people who make it up...Anne Kauffman’s staging establishes a sleek, alienating style that emphasizes rather than integrates the play’s jarring shifts. Covering the entire back wall of David Korins’s gleaming white set is a mirror that puts the audience in the play. It’s a disorienting touch that like the coolly witty script, underlines the artifice of the production.
(Marilyn Stasio) While it's fun to watch Blanche teaching Lily an appreciation for fine wine and 19th century poetry, Adjmi has bonier fish to fry. The profound social and racial prejudices of his Syrian-Jewish characters are no less shocking for being so casually stated, and Woodard switches to high-drama mode when it's time for Blanche to show her scars. But the scribe is equally unsparing about the tribal community's collective collusion in keeping their women uneducated and enslaved -- even to the point of ignorance about their own ethnic heritage. A scene in which Lily coolly informs her snooty girlfriends they are Arabs from the Iberian peninsula -- and indeed, not even Caucasian -- is priceless. Had Adjmi kept this sort of thing coming, "Stunning" would have lived up to its considerable promise.
Village Voice B
(Alexis Soloski) Stunning, produced by Lincoln Center's LCT3 series, is a rabbit punch of a play, opening as satire and transforming—sneak-attack-style—into brutal tragedy. Despite the linguistic precision of Adjmi's script and the fierce efficiency of Anne Kauffman's direction, this shift isn't entirely successful. Having mocked his characters, Adjmi then expects his audience to mourn them. He also expects us to credit the unlikely sexual relationship that Blanche and Lily develop: Woodard endows Blanche with a sinewy attraction and Milioti has a vulnerable charm, but their interaction lacks heat. Adjmi has written a difficult play—glossy and jagged, comfortable and discomfiting—but for a play about a maid, it ultimately proves too untidy.
(Adam R. Perlman) The play is largely about being hemmed in and fighting to get out. But Adjmi paints both himself and his characters into a corner too tight to hold the bold and brilliant promise of his first act. It's a shame. Before collapsing into self-parody, Stunning starts off as the year's most exciting new play...LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater's new initiative, has given Stunning a first-rate production. Anne Kauffman's stylish direction has a character-driven vitality that is far too rare. David Korins' set is a marvel of white minimalism that Lily, in an inspired bit of symbolism, insists must be freshly repainted everyday. I wish Adjmi would follow suit and white out his play's decline into desperate melodrama. By the time we reach the headshaking conclusion, it's hard to recognize the exhilarating voice that had spoken from the stage earlier in the evening.
(Patrick Lee) While this lively and engaging play convincingly depicts the growing intimate friendship between the two women, it falls frustratingly short of coming together as a unified, thematically cohesive whole...it seems to reach for a larger theme that doesn't quite come off, and some of Adjmi's plotting (recurring references to a ghost in the house, for example) seems more convenient than thematically purposeful. This is especially felt as the second act winds down toward a less than effective conclusion
Associated Press C+
(Jennifer Farrar) Adjmi juxtaposes mismatched cultures and emotional themes that have dramatic possibilities. But despite the tension that builds as the plot twists and darkens, the result falls somehow flat. Under Anne Kauffman's direction, the talented cast brings sharp comedic timing to the humorous moments and credibility to the more harrowing scenes.
(Matthew Murray) Despite its story about the conflation of race, religion, and sexuality in modern-day Brooklyn, this plodding and pretentious play, which has been sharply directed by Anne Kauffman and is flaccidly acted by an unruly cast of six, is most useful as an object lesson for playwrights. If you’re tempted to inject every conceivable thing you care about into your play, [sic] it screams continually over its interminable running time of two hours and 20 minutes, don’t. Author and audience alike will benefit more from a tight collection of fully realized concepts than a murky smorgasbord.
NYP A- 12; TONY A- 12; TNY B+ 11; VV B 10; NYT B 10; V B 10; BS B- 9; TM B- 9; AP C+ 8; TB F+ 2; TOTAL: 93 / 10 = 9.3 (B-)