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Fine cast lifts 'Glory' above sordid story line

Elysa Gardner

NEW YORK -- In Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl, the plays that established her reputation as one of the most provocative and articulate young writers around, Rebecca Gilman dealt with educated, ambitious professionals who could wax eloquent about everything from their relationship woes to the trickiest dilemmas facing society at large.

The characters in her latest off-Broadway outing, The Glory of Living ( * * out of four), which was originally produced in Chicago four years ago, live in another social universe altogether. They are what some of the hip urbanites who attended a recent preview of the show at the tiny MCC Theater -- where it opened last Thursday and will play through Dec. 1 -- might condescendingly refer to as white trash.

Gilman, a native of Alabama, one of several Southern states that provides the play's setting, seems at first blush to have a more complex and sympathetic view. The protagonist of her story, Lisa, is a 15-year-old girl who escapes a sorry home life -- her mother is a prostitute who has her daughter fetch beers for clients -- by running off with an ex-convict who lures her into a web of sexual depravity and criminal behavior. Lisa is presented as a convincing and compelling mix of wary victim and precocious survivor; we feel for her without looking down on her or absolving her of all responsibility for her plight.

But the people and scenarios that figure into Lisa's downfall are often more simplistic and predictable. There is Clint, the no-good good ole boy whom Lisa marries, who weepingly pledges undying love in between violent outbursts; Burrows, the police detective who bullies Lisa mercilessly; Carl, the bleeding-heart lawyer who tries to be the father figure she never had; and the string of vapid underage girls whom Clint, abetted by Lisa, forces into various sordid acts. While hardly unrealistic -- few stereotypes are -- these characters evoke frustrating clichés, and their flat, often insipid exchanges make for some dull moments.

On the other hand, Gilman's dialogue can reveal a rugged naturalism that may surprise those who have found her previous efforts too self-consciously clever. That quality is enhanced by Philip Seymour Hoffman's unflinching direction, which sets a tone of matter-of-fact creepiness that makes the play's events even more darkly affecting.

Hoffman is aided by a consistently fine cast, led by young film actress Anna Paquin, who makes an astonishing stage debut as Lisa. Paquin's pitch-perfect expressions and mannerisms capture both conventional adolescent awkwardness and the more disturbing quirks and anxieties that can arise from child abuse and domestic violence. Jeffrey Donovan is similarly astute as Clint, making both his monstrous behavior and his twisted affection for Lisa credible. Other standout performances include Jenna Lamia's turn as a disaffected girl who resists Clint's advances, and Andrew McGinn's portrayal of a simple but proud man whose girlfriend isn't as lucky.

Clearly, Gilman is less than at home in the social and cultural milieu these characters inhabit. But by trying to understand them without patronizing them, she makes The Glory of Living a vital and honorable work, if a flawed one.

USA Today, November 21, 2001