Pivotal character is a hollow shell.

Polly Stenham, who was just 19 when she wrote “That Face,” is all the rage in Blighty, where crix threw beaucoup awards at her dysfunctional family drama. After her muscular helming of Sarah Kane’s “Blasted,” helmer Sarah Benson is also hotter than hot. So credit MTC for grabbing with both hands. But the dramatic prize wasn’t worth the effort. Although its incestuous insinuations about an alcoholic mother who devours her young are calculated to shock, this pivotal character is a hollow shell, and Elizabeth Marvel, who backed out of the role taken over by Laila Robins, was smart to bail.

Let’s give it up, though, for Cristin Milioti, who was stunning in “Stunning” and has been working her way up the casting food chain. Here, she gives a funny, sad, and otherwise beautifully articulated perf as Mia, the elder of two damaged children that their successful but no-account father left to be reared by their alcoholic mother. Thanks to her quick mind and whiplash tongue (and her father’s money), Mia managed to escape this mother from hell and establish herself in a posh boarding school, only to blow her advantage by conspiring in the torture of a younger student.

Her 18-year-old brother, Henry (Christopher Abbott), hasn’t been as lucky. A school dropout who has been sleeping in his mother’s bed and catering to her every selfish whim since he was 13, in Abbott’s sensitive perf this lost boy is every bit the brave soldier he fancies himself. Trained as his mother’s enabler, he sweetly but foolishly gives in to her every insane demand, believing that he can “fix” her, “so I could know it wasn’t a terrible mistake, all that trying and crying for you.”

Stenham understands and respects these broken children, who hide their hurts behind a facade of cynicism and a barrage of corrosive teen-talk. While the innocent Henry really is the “gentle, perfect son” his mother both values and destroys, Mia, wise beyond her years, armors herself in the bitter humor that gives this otherwise numbing play its bite.

No such discernment (and no sympathy whatsoever) is extended to their monstrous mom, Martha (Laila Robins), who rants and raves like some demented madwoman in a Gothic melodrama without ever developing into a believable character. Having taken Martha’s superficial measure — the drinking, the denial, the insane demands and bizarre behavior — Stenham works them into a relentless litany as exhausting to the audience as it must be for the poor thesp trapped in her repetitive rituals. Robins gives it all she’s got: faded glamour, elegant diction and a final moment of dignity and pride. But for all the air she sucks out of the play, the character remains a figment of the scribe’s nightmares.

That Face

MTC at City Center Stage 1;299 seats; $75 top

Production

A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in one act by Polly Stenham. Directed by Sarah Benson.

Creative

Sets and costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Matt Tierney; dialect coach, Ben Furey; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Hannah Cohen. Reviewed May 16, 2010. Opened May 18. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Henry - Christopher Abbott Alice - Maite Alina Izzy - Betty Gilpin Mia - Cristin Milioti Martha - Laila Robins Hugh - Victor Slezak
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