Unless you happen to live in an insular Syrian-Jewish community, the culture shock of “Stunning” could be quite … well, stunning. Even allowing for its overelevated emotional pitch and melodramatic ending, David Adjmi’s eye-opening drama about a despotic rag merchant, his tyrannized child bride and the black maid who challenges the medieval customs of their domestic life has a chilling impact. Riveting perfs and super-stylish staging polish the play’s satirical weapons of high dudgeon, while adding to the luster of LCT3, the developmental wing of Lincoln Center currently making a splash in its inaugural season at the Duke.
Stunning (sorry about that) set by David Korins (“Passing Strange”), searchingly lit by Japhy Weideman, leaves no room for hiding in the antiseptic household of Ike Schwecky (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a nouveau riche merchant who made his fortune in the garment trade and gets his rocks off by bossing around his docile 16-year-old bride Lily (the enchanting Cristin Milioti). (Let’s credit Mastrogiorgio here for trying not to show what a kick it is to play a character who comes with such a monstrous set of entitlements.)
Their white-on-white McMansion in the Midwood section of Brooklyn is an utterly soulless environment, all slippery leather furniture modules, sharp-angled steel vitrines and cold glass surfaces, with nary a curve or cushion to curl up to.
The same excessive attention to modern taste (which results in no taste at all) extends to the characters, so immaculately coiffed and groomed and outfitted (by Miranda Hoffman) they look like mannequins. Until they open their mouths.
In Adjmi’s pitiless opening scene, a cowering Lily mentally scrambles to pick up social tips from Shelly (Jeanine Serralles, via Bette Davis), her termagant of a sister, and their unmarried friend, Claudine (Sas Goldberg, invisible clothespin on her nose). The sameness of their clothes (all boots, boobs and bangles) reflects the sameness of their thinking — that women of their ethnic group are born to be their husbands’ slaves, which means marrying in their teens, keeping in shape and breeding on demand.
Having left school when she turned 16 and just gotten married to a man old enough to be her father, Lily seems a bit slow at navigating her new Stepford Wife way of life. But it seems pretty clear she’ll adjust in time — unless Blanche (Charlayne Woodard), her new maid, gets to her first.
Looking fit and fine, Woodard exudes such intelligence and charisma, no one but oblivious Ike and naive Lily would accept her as a candidate for a maid. But Blanche talks a good game, presenting herself as a well-bred, well-traveled and extremely well-educated black woman from Chicago, working off the student loans that earned her a PhD. and her mastery of several foreign languages. “Actually,” she says, “it’s kinda ironic cuz I studied representations of the African American Domestic in Mass Media and here I am — but I luuuv irony.”
Ill-educated Lily doesn’t have a clue what brainy Blanche is talking about half the time. But she responds like the pure little flower she is to the sunlike warmth of her new maid’s obvious concern for her life as a rich man’s slave. Both thesps bloom under Anne Kauffman’s fine-tuned (and in key moments, quite delicate) helming, and it’s a quiet thrill to watch Lily’s dawning intelligence trying to grasp new concepts of life — and lesbian love.
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. But from some misguided notion of “drama,” he allows his hyper-real play to take a melodramatic turn that is probably fatal. You can almost hear his target audience sighing in relief: “Oh! I thought it was real, but after all … it’s only a play.”