- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

“Stunning” is an apt title for David Adjmi’s world-premiere play, receiving a sensational production at Woolly Mammoth under the beautifully intuitive direction of Anne Kauffman.

Provocative, smart and stinging, “Stunning” takes audiences into the cosseted world of Syrian Jews living in Brooklyn, N.Y., yet speaks brashly and unsparingly about racial identity as a whole and what is gained and lost by assimilation and exposure to other cultures.

The turf is familiar to Mr. Adjmi, who grew up in a Syrian Jewish enclave in Brooklyn and depicts its members as ludicrously materialistic, ultramacho and acutely trend-conscious while steadfastly adhering to old-country mores and customs.

He portrays his people with familiarity rather than affection — a rare quality in an autobiographical work. The result is a gorgeous, bitingly humorous assemblage of glittering monsters.

From the outside, the characters in “Stunning” seem up-to-the-minute modern. In the dazzling opening scene, Lily (Laura Heisler) and her sister Shelly (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, witheringly cold in her unhappiness) and girlfriend Claudine (a forbidding Abby Wood) play poker, compliment each other’s taste and sling Arab slang. Wearing cutting-edge monochromatic duds, they sit in a stark white-and-Plexiglas room that looks like an Architectural Digest spread. (Set designer Daniel Conway has fashioned a slick bilevel space that is all hard angles and unsparing reflections.)

You discover that Lily is a 16-year-old bride married to a middle-aged man named Ike (the menacing Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) who has a short fuse and wobbly ethics. A partner in her family’s jeans-and-sportswear empire, Ike wants her to start bearing children right away.

This arrangement would scarcely raise eyebrows in her Brooklyn community, where the young wives get facials and French manicures, take tennis lessons, gossip, go shopping and generally behave like the spoiled debutantes they are.

As portrayed with consummate, often disquieting verve by Miss Heisler, Lily is a particularly frothy confection. Twirling her hair, picking at her peeling salon tan, savoring her sugarless gum as if it is foie gras, Lily is half Lolita, half annoying teeny-bopper. A product of her pampered enclave, she has no sense of herself or her culture.

Lily is ripe for the picking when her new maid walks in and upsets the household’s delicate balance. Blanche (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, a compelling shape-shifter) is an enigmatic black woman who quotes poetry and Roland Barthes, studies semiotics, knows French wines and claims friendships with Bell Hooks and Cornel West. Blanche gives Lily experiences the girl is ill-equipped to handle — and her cunning infiltration into every aspect of Lily’s life has ugly repercussions.

Though the scathing, arch humor makes you think of Edward Albee’s portrayals of denizens of rarified societies, Mr. Adjmi also seems inspired by other past writing styles and genres, namely, “women’s pictures” from the 1940s and ‘50s. It is no accident that Blanche is a devotee of semiotics — from the slang spouted by the characters to their circumscribed behavior within and outside the community, everything is so coded you swear Barbara Stanwyck or Deborah Kerr is going to sweep through the mirrored doors any second.

In “Stunning,” the melodrama does not produce cathartic weeping or serve as an oblique tribute to the twin sides of sisterhood: bonding and betrayal. Instead, it is used satirically, which intensifies the tragic sense of intrusion and cultural clash.

****

WHAT: “Stunning” by David Adjmi

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 6.

TICKETS: $24 to $57

PHONE: 202/393-3939

WEB SITE: www.woollymammoth.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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