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Little Girls Don't Cry

Anna Paquin makes a compelling stage debut as a young woman who seeks love in all the wrong places; in Speaking in Tongues, farce segues awkwardly into mystery.

John Simon

Trailer-trash comedy or drama, perhaps not quite in evidence enough for a genre, surely qualifies as a subgenre. It caters to an audience's need to feel superior to at least some people without becoming Love and Bullets: Anna Paquin and Jeffrey Donovan are excellent in their downward spiral in The Glory of Living. politically incorrect. "Redneck," after all, refers less to skin color than to a darkness of mind, a state that can be exploited for easy laughs and titillating goosebumps. That Rebecca Gilman's characters in The Glory of Living are both risible and reprehensible, but not patronized or caricatured, is in itself an accomplishment.

Gilman's plays -- her Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl have been seen in New York recently -- explore unseemly subjects in challenging ways with varying efficacy, but never without interest to us. Here again she tackles a sordid but cautionary story. Fifteen-year-old Lisa lost her father when she was 10; her mother turns tricks in their wretched one-room quarters with only a hanging sheet separating Lisa from the sights, but not the sounds, of crude sex. The sullen girl has learned to live with this; but when Clint, the sidekick of one of the mother's johns, offers Lisa marriage and escape, she jumps at the chance.

The unfortunate girl only exchanges one kind of lovelessness for another. Her twin babies have been dumped on Clint's mother while the young couple rattles through the South from motel to motel, and Lisa is obliged to lure na?e young girls into having kinky sex with Clint. When riddance by bullet emerges as the most expeditious way to dispose of her husband's victims, she is eventually even prodded into becoming Clint's executioner. All this is presented without prurience, condescension, or moralizing. And when Lisa finally -- perhaps too late -- encounters an empathetic human being, Gilman does not turn sentimental.

Still, I don't want to oversell a modest play whose seamy and savage goings-on will not be to everybody's taste. Strongly but unluridly directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman -- even forgoing nudity where the author calls for it -- The Glory of Living holds us through psychological shrewdness and on-target language, to which is added incisive performing.

Anna Paquin, the bravura child star of The Piano, has matured into a compelling young actress, even if her looks do not match the text's requirements. She endows Lisa with disarming directness, uncluttered with pleas for sympathy. When her anxious attorney is the first to accord her humane concern, her thawing out into belated humanity is exquisitely calibrated. As the engaging but psychotic Clint, Jeffrey Donovan is no less exemplary, as is David Aaron Baker as the girl's compassionate defender. Lesser roles, too, are caringly realized, notably by Andrew McGinn as a witness for the prosecution. The only disappointment is the rather routine music and sound design by the usually outstanding David Van Tieghem.

New York Magazine, December 3, 2001