Review: ‘Stunning’

Playwright David Adjmi is quickly building a reputation for unvarnished presentations of offbeat and disturbing themes.

Playwright David Adjmi is quickly building a reputation for unvarnished presentations of offbeat and disturbing themes. On the heels of “The Evildoers” at Yale Rep in January comes “Stunning,” a modern-day saga about repressive intellectual confinement ripped from Adjmi’s own cloistered youth in Brooklyn’s Sephardic Jewish enclave. The play is receiving a first-class sendoff in a stylized production by D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater, staged with rigorous efficiency by Anne Kauffman.

Lily (Laura Heisler), a 16-year-old Brooklyn native, enjoys a carefree life of shopping sprees and tennis outings financed via her marriage to an older man, Ike (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend).

Her pampered existence is underscored in a deliciously comic opening scene, in which Lily, her sister Shelly (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and chum Claudine (Abby Wood) breathlessly exchange an orgy of ditzy banter in Lily’s gleaming white home. This self-absorbed, complacent trio of close-knit Syrian Jews describe their tranquil universe as “stunning.”

Yet, as Lily soon discovers, the line between utopia and purgatory is vapor thin — especially since Ike is an abusive clod who believes a wife’s only role is to produce children.

Arriving to stir the pot is Blanche (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the new African-American housekeeper whose worldliness and proclaimed academic credentials are mysteriously belied by her humble status. She embarks on a campaign to rescue the innocent teen from a life of domestic imprisonment.

Displaying a deft touch for both comedy and drama, the playwright uses the setup to explore timeless subjects of racial bigotry, sexism and religious tribalism. Richly defined characters tackle sensitive topics insightfully and often to incendiary effect. An unexpected plot twist, and a subtle play on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” embellish the story.

Meticulous perfs from Heisler and Bernstine lead the thoroughly professional ensemble. Heisler is terrific as the inquisitive, rebellious teen, while Bernstine carefully reveals a character grappling with her own imprisonment issues. Fernandez-Coffey offers a smart portrayal of the uncompromising sister, and Goodfriend’s brutish husband teeters convincingly on the edge of violence.

It’s all packaged in set designer Daniel Conway’s nifty two-story home, filled with sliding doors and polished mirrors that offer prime viewing of the troubled household from all sides, just like the play.


Woolly Mammoth Theater, Washington, D.C.; 265 seats; $57 top


A Woolly Mammoth Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by David Adjmi. Directed by Anne Kauffman.


Set, Daniel Conway; costumes, Helen Q. Huang; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryann Rumery. Opened March 16, 2008. Reviewed March 20. Runs through April 6. Running time: 2 HOURS.


Lily - Laura Heisler Shelly - Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey Claudine - Abby Wood Blanche - Quincy Tyler Bernstine Ike - Michael Gabriel Goodfriend JoJo - Clinton Brandhagen

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