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Killing Social Drama In Cheap Motel Rooms

Linda Winer

THE GLORY OF LIVING. By Rebecca Gilman, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sets by Michelle Malavet, costumes by Mimi O'Donnell, lights by James Vermeulen, music by David Van Tieghem. MCC Theater, 28th Street west of Sixth Avenue. Seen at Tuesday's preview.

On the list of theater's insoluble mysteries, please add the growing career of Rebecca Gilman. While playwrights around the city and the country are scrambling to get someone, anyone, to pay attention to their work, this favorite of Chicago's Goodman Theater is having her third major off-Broadway production in 18 months.

First the Lincoln Center Theater introduced her with Spinning Into Butter, a naive and implausible drama about political correctness and white- guilt racism on a college campus. Soon, Manhattan Theatre Club opened Boy Gets Girl, a clunky, preachy drama about a woman being stalked.

Now MCC, which has presented such thoughtful provocations as Wit and The Grey Zone in its tiny theater, brings us The Glory of Living, Gilman's drama about an abused trailer-trash Alabama teen on a rape and murder spree with her older husband. Despite a luminously confident and believably gritty stage debut by Anna Paquin, who won her Oscar for The Piano at age 11, in 1993, and an unflinching production by the ever-more-versatile Philip Seymour Hoffman, the play is obvious, manipulative and dull.

The Glory of Living - the title is, surprise, ironic - is a middle-shelf example of the mean-and-stupid genre. The 1997 play was produced in 1999 at London's Royal Court Theatre, where the virtual unknown became the first American to win the London Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright. Unlike her subsequent works, which concern themselves with more insidious white-collar transgressions, this one is flat-out brutal. At least it doesn't stop for characters to burst into self-flagellating sermons.

Gilman wants to write plays of ideas, but we keep wanting them to have more than one idea at a sitting. We wish we could celebrate her belief in big subjects and intimate stories, but none of the three produced in New York has gone beyond a sort of social-message pulp. When quality Law & Order episodes are available on what seems to be any time of the TV day, the theater we need is about something more.

Hoffman, co-director of his own LAByrinth Theatre Company, clearly knows how to help movie actors translate cinematic detail into tough stage naturalism. Paquin appears fearless as Lisa, the 15-year-old daughter of an enterprising alcoholic widow (Erika Rolfsrud) who sells herself to customers over the CB radio.

When Clint - played with ambiguous menace by Jeffrey Donovan - shows up, the Lisa he meets is part self-protective child, part Lolita. And Paquin, with her pretty, fleshy face, moves with unnerving grace from Lisa's family hellhole into an outlaw hell of her own.

The story, such as it is, involves years of interchangeable motels in brief scenes, designed with economical dump authenticity by Michelle Malavet. Clint sends Lisa out to find him girls; then, when he is finished, she kills them for him. Eventually, they are caught and the clueless but sweet public defender, David Aaron Baker, tries to help.

The cast is strong. The girls swing their bare legs around with casual exposed believability. Despite the red toy piano that Lisa takes through her lost life - echoes of The Piano? - Gilman mostly keeps the sentimental at a distance until the end. The big message is not hammered as relentlessly as in her other work. We never really understand Lisa, which is all right. Unfortunately, we also never care.

Newsday, November 16, 2001,