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In Her World, Normalcy Includes the Grotesque

Ben Brantley

Anna Paquin brings quiet centeredness to her stage debut as a disaffected girl who goes directly from middle school to marriage and murder.

She's still got the glow, all right.

In the eight years since she won an Oscar at 11 for Jane Campion's film The Piano, Anna Paquin has had more than enough time to grow out of prepubescent precocity and into adolescent archness or awkwardness. The history of show business is littered with the dead careers of child actors whose magic vanished when their childhoods ended.

But making her professional stage debut in Rebecca Gilman's Glory of Living, Ms. Paquin, now 19, still commands that uncanny, quiet centeredness that first mesmerized movie audiences. And her face still has a naked openness that makes you feel almost guilty for staring at her.

Stare you undoubtedly will, however. Ms. Paquin, playing a disaffected girl who goes directly from middle school to marriage and murder, is conveying the kind of low-key emotional eloquence that usually registers only in cinematic close-ups.

The MCC Theater, where Ms. Gilman's play opened last night under the astute direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, is small tiny, actually, by Broadway standards. But there is little doubt that Ms. Paquin's rare combination of luminosity and subtlety is made as much for the stage as the screen.

This is an essential asset for The Glory of Living, a drama that despite its lurid plot has been largely rendered in a single shade of gray. Ms. Gilman's play is shaped by that spare, cold-eyed sensibility commonly found in Court TV documentaries and laconic trailer-park fiction.

In such works, grisly crimes are recounted by their perpetrators with the same bored matter-of-factness they might bring to a description of a take-out meal from White Castle. And the ironically titled Glory doesn't avoid what in English 101 is called the fallacy of imitative form. That means, in this instance, that numbed-out people wind up infecting you with their numbness.

Ms. Gilman, best known for the confrontational polemics of her Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl, here takes an approach that is both more indirect and clinical. There's none of that carefully modulated debate quality of her other works. Unfortunately, as prosaic evidence has repeatedly demonstrated, few real-life serial killers have the exotic genius of a Hannibal Lecter.

Lisa, the homicidal Alabama teenager played by Ms. Paquin, and her husband, Clint (Jeffrey Donovan), a pedophile, are not a couple whose conversation would liven up even a dull dinner party. By the second hour in their company, your gaze may be drifting (languidly) toward your watch, even though the subject is the sort of murders that tabloids drool over.

Mr. Hoffman, a first-rate actor who is showing increasing evidence of becoming a first-rate director, and his team serve up Ms. Gilman's toxic yet tepid brew as expertly as one could wish. Michelle Malavat's appropriately seedy set, in full view of the arriving audience, clues you as to what lies ahead.

A room with fake wood paneling, divided by well-worn blankets hung on a clothesline, furniture that announces its provenance as Wal-Mart yep, we've been here before in gritty trailer trash plays like Killer Joe and last season's Dead-Eye Boy.

And there is Ms. Paquin as Lisa, looking not a day over her character's age of 15. Clutching her bare knees to her chest, her furtive gaze a mix of self-consciousness and contempt, Lisa is a monument to the sullen blankness that drives parents of teenage girls everywhere to despair.

Her classic behavior is framed by less classic circumstances. Mom (Erika Rolfsurd), a hooker who solicits by CB radio, is noisily entertaining a client, while Lisa tries to avoid conversation with the client's friend, a handsome redneck reptile named Clint.

But when Clint, played with convincingly ragged charm by Mr. Donovan, describes his past as a car thief and a prison inmate, you can see the glitter of interest in Lisa's sidewise glance. And when Clint boasts that in prison he learned "how to read people," it becomes clear that Lisa wants nothing so much as to be read. As they say in the romance novels, she sees her destiny in his eyes.

That destiny fulfills itself amid the squalor of perpetually uncleaned motel rooms and the sterility of interrogation chambers and prison cells. Yet whether luring underage girls into her husband's bed or being questioned by understandably impatient police officers, she's the same old Lisa.

Contrary to stereotype, and to what she herself says, she is not prematurely old and hardened. She's frozen forever in mid-adolescence, treating everything with an implicit inner shrug that's belied by eyes that sparkle with a pathetic eagerness to please.

The texture that Ms. Paquin finds within Lisa's flatness is truly remarkable, recalling the young Sissy Spacek's work in the 1974 film "Badlands." Mr. Donovan is fine as the moody, perversely sentimental man who may or may not control his wife. So are the three young, artfully artless actresses who portray Lisa and Clint's sexual prey (Brittany Slattery, Alicia Van Couvering and Jenna Lamia).

Mr. Hoffman goes out of his way to avoid the thunder of melodrama. He sustains an atmosphere of ordinariness that doubles the shock value of an early scene with Mr. Donovan, Ms. Paquin and Ms. Slattery, whose character makes an, er, entrance unlike any I have seen.

The key to the play's sensibility, of course, is in its calculated banality. Lisa may not by conventional standards "know what normal is," as Clint tells her. But nothing is more relative than normalcy, and in Lisa's world, the extreme and the grotesque have always blended right into the everyday.

The most evocative scenes in Glory trade on this contradiction, as when Lisa combs Clint's hair for him so he'll look nice when he hits on little girls. By the second act, which is devoted to the consequences of the couple's crime, the play is wearing thin. You can understand the point of showing how futile the usual rules of crime detection are when applied to someone like Lisa.

But suddenly false notes of contrivance are being struck: a trivial interruption by a police stenographer at the tense climax of an interrogation; the use of Lisa's toy piano (given to her by her dead father) as a symbol of human mystery that might as well be stamped with the brand name Rosebud.

And after nearly two hours of Ms. Gilman's deliberately vapid dialogue, it's hard not to feel like Lisa's exasperated lawyer (well played by David Aaron Baker), who keeps running up against the same wall of apathy.

Speaking of her testimony in court, he says, "You smile at all the wrong times." The reason you keep watching Glory is that Ms. Paquin packs such a wealth of mixed signals into those mistimed smiles.

THE GLORY OF LIVING By Rebecca Gilman; directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman; sets by Michelle Malavet; costumes by Mimi O'Donnell; lighting by James Vermeulen; original music and sound by David Van Tieghem; fight direction by Rick Sordelet; dialect coach, Kate Wilson; production stage manager, Stacy P. Hughes; production manager, Lester P. Grant. Presented by MCC Theater, Robert LuPone and Bernard Telsey, artistic directors; William Cantler, associate artistic director. At 120 West 28th Street, Manhattan. WITH: Anna Paquin (Lisa), Jeffrey Donovan (Clint), Erika Rolfsrud (Jeanette and Transcriber), Brittany Slattery (Girl), Alicia Van Couvering (Carol), Jenna Lamia (Angie), David Aaron Baker (Carl), Andrew McGinn (Steve), Myk Watford (Jim, Policeman No. 1, Hugh and a guard) and Larry Clarke (Policeman No. 2, Burrows and a guard).

New York Times, November 16, 2001