The advantage of writing about something you know pays off handsomely for multi-award-winning playwright David Adjmi. Born and raised in the Midwood section of Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community, Adjmi’s play, under the superb direction of Anne Kauffman, is an astonishingly provocative perspective of three lives that collide within it: more specifically, a 16-year-old girl, her tyrannical much older husband, and the black maid who comes between them.
Commendably cast, Kauffman’s direction of this Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3 production affords Adjmi’s play every advantage in making its position clear and convincing. Careening courageously, but never recklessly, between satire and melodrama — and ultimately tragedy — “Stunning” is an eye-opening, intimately focused look into the marriage of a couple within a sect that guards its insularity and its ingrained religious/cultural identity.
The play seems not to be as concerned with the deeply embedded social practices and the restrictions that come from a prescribed Syrian-Jewish indebtedness to family as it is with the changes that happen within 16-year-old Lily (Cristin Milioti), who may or may not have been tricked into a marriage to garment tycoon Ike Schwecky (Danny Mastrogiorgio) to save her reputation. Lily also feels the pressure of being a respectful wife, a compliant baby machine, as well as keeping up appearances by efficiently maintaining the running of the icy McMansion.
Ike is not only a scoundrel in his private life, but also in his business affairs, which are tied to a partnership with his brother-in-law, Jojo Dweck (Steven Rattazzi). Mastrogiorgio is both amusingly and terrifyingly adept at exercising Ike’s disarmingly calculated authority, chauvinism, and narcissism. But our empathy understandably is with Lily, despite her equally terrifying lack of education (she left school to marry at the age of 16).
The opening scene is a hilariously concerted over-layering of superficial chit-chat between Lily, her sister, Shelly Dweck (Jeanine Serralles), and their unmarried friend, Claudine (Sas Goldberg). Their girly camaraderie and their distinct Brooklyn-ese quickly begin to reflect their limited parameters. Wealthy, self-absorbed, and fashion-possessed, these materialistic women clearly have no inclination or desire to be more than what they appear to each other. All hell breaks loose after Lily reluctantly hires Blanche (Charlayne Woodard), a 43-year-old black woman (“you were supposed to be Puerto Rican”) as a live-in maid. What is it that prompts Blanche to start giving shape and perspective to Lily’s limited intellectual and cultural range? Why has Blanche, who speaks four languages, listens to classical music while she cleans, and talks of her degrees from various colleges, resorted to work as a maid?
The plot gets to the heart of matter during Ike’s absences on business trips. The intimacy that grows between Blanche, whose worldly sophistication appears enviable, and Lily, whose latent feelings are beginning to stir, become the catalyst for a drastic change in Lily’s relationship with Ike.
Milioti is a delight as the young woman who moves endearingly from being an easily distracted, selfish ditz to ravenous seeker of knowledge in both literal and sexual terms. Of the many formidable performances given by Woodward, she is a standout as Blanche. We see her take this complexly defined character with a troubled past from a position of power to points of insecurity, fear, and worse. Of all the lessons prescribed in Blanche’s syllabus, the one that includes the sampling of fine wine is especially amusing.
Perhaps it is opportune that “Stunning” arrives on the heels of two other Off-Broadway plays — “Groundswell” and “Pure Confidence” — in which the characters’ socio-economic backgrounds are key dramatic components to the drama. The former deals with the economic realities of black and white citizens in post-Apartheid South Africa and the latter with the realities of life for black slaves and white slave owners in the Confederate South, and after the Civil War. Ironically, the racial-cultural roots and edicts that define the prescribed destiny of Syrian-Jews are not those that would be compatible with the values of others. Unlike other minorities, they stand proudly aloof, apart, and unobstructed.
However we may choose to stand on this, “Stunning” gives us an unforgiving look at an aggressively insular sect, and how its self-perpetuating fundamentals regarding business, making money, and controlling personal lives affect generation after generation. While a background in the religious, social, and business ethics that control American Syrian Jews isn’t a prerequisite (a recent New York Times Magazine article gave one perspective), Adjmi speaks critically and courageously for itself. To his credit as a first-hand observer, his play expertly serves two purposes: the first to see the parameters that define this community, particularly the value they put on money and material possessions. The second is to see how Lily, through Blanche’s mentoring and tutoring, acknowledges and experiences the birth of her own rebellious spirit, her quest for knowledge, and her right to explore and discover herself.
If “Stunning’s” dramatic arc ultimately appears more than a bit compromised by a startling, almost schizophrenic denouement, the key scenes that shape the play are nevertheless vividly dramatized. Particularly vivid is David Korins’s ultra modern set design, a sprawling and icy interior of white on white furnishings and mirrored walls. That they also have shape-shifting qualities, under Japhy Weideman’s ultra bright lighting, adds to the spectacular effect. Miranda Hoffman’s wonderful haute couture costume designs make their point by also being funny. ***
“Stunning,” through Saturday, July 11, Duke Theater, 229 West 42nd Street. $20. 646-223-3010.