From the moment Mary hires Ashling to be the nanny for her children, “things start to feel just a little….off,” according to the promotion for “Lucy.” But for the entire two hours (without intermission) of this play written and directed by Erica Schmidt, I kept waiting for the promised thriller to kick in.
“Lucy,” which is running at Minetta Lane Theater through February 25 and will then be turned into an audiobook for Audible, has its pleasures, primarily the persuasive performances of Brooke Bloom as Mary and Lynn Collins as Ashling. (Charlotte Surak is also adorable as Mary’s stubborn six-year-old daughter, the title character.) But what feels “a little… off” is the script, which tries to evoke tension and mystery, but more often comes off as dubious and contrived.
Mary is a caricature of a Type A personality, a radiologist and single mother in her forties who has some absurdly rigid notions about child-rearing: She gives her new nanny “a study guide to my kid,” that’s 15 pages long. As portrayed by Bloom, Mary looks as if it’s only through her tremendous discipline and practiced bedside manner that she is able to suppress her impulse to explode in impatience and furious denunciation.
At 58, Ashling is something of a caricature of a free spirit. She has been a professional nanny for forty years because, she tells Mary, she loves the babies; they keep her young; she considers herself a “baby whisperer” and somebody who “co-parents.”She’s also dating a younger musician whom she calls only Rock Star; her descriptions to Mary of their carnal encounters highlight the comic contrast in the two women’s nature. Mary doesn’t have time for any relationship, and maybe never did; her second child was conceived with donor sperm.
Kaye Voyce’s smart costume design further underscores the difference: Mary wears understated black even when nine months pregnant with her second child, Ashling hippie-era long paisley dresses accessorized by vintage jewelry.
This is a set-up for comedy, and there are funny moments. But in the nine months over which the play unfolds, “Lucy” seems mostly intended as a guessing game. At first we’re guessing: What is Ashling up to? But ultimately I wondered: what is the playwright up to?
Ashling seems wholeheartedly agreeable to whatever Mary says to do, or not to do (her annoying go-to responses are “No problemo,” and “you betcha,”) But then she does the opposite. Mary tells her not to make soup, because it’s too time-consuming and she’d rather Ashling spend the time exercising her infant son Max during the day so that he’ll sleep at night; Ashling makes soup. Mary asks Ashling not to buy the children gifts, because it will spoil them, and their relationship shouldn’t be built on gifts. Ashling buys Lucy a big expensive teddy bear.
Mary politely and apologetically asks Ashling to stop wearing her perfume to work. “It gets on Max and then I’m breast feeding him in the night and I feel like I’m feeding you — it’s like a primal thing.”
“Oh no,” Ashling replies, “I don’t want to get in the way of your mama time!” – but tells Mary she doesn’t wear perfume. Eventually we learn she does wear perfume (which I suppose is a spoiler, but more an indication of how little there is to spoil in this thin plot.)
Is Ashling thus deliberately and perniciously trying to undermine Mary’s mothering by wearing the perfume, or is she asserting her humanity against an employer’s unreasonable demands?
The answer to this might depend on your world view on labor-management issues. The playwright seems to be siding with Mary: We see Ashling showing up late to work, and too casual about Max’s having hit his head repeatedly falling off a gym mat. She also makes herself entirely too much at home, eg:
But if the point of “Lucy” is the difficulty faced by working mothers, why pick as your Everywoman a character who is affluent (radiologists in New York City make an average annual salary of half a million dollars), and not just too busy for a social life, but someone who seems actively anti-social: She has no spouse, no family (her parents are dead, and she was an only child), but not even any sign of friends or colleagues. It’s hard to believe that this character ever wanted kids; there’s not a single moment in the play when she seems to enjoy them. They are the source of her anxiety and rage (“I never felt anger in my life until I had her,” Mary tells Ashling at one point.)
There are details about Ashling that also don’t add up, but at least we see her enjoying the childrearing, at one point dancing with Lucy and singing along with Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero.” If the lyrics (“my scheming…I’m the problem”) may be the playwright’s sly way of cluing us in to Ashling’s guilt, it’s a scene for which lighting designer Cha See and sound designer Justin Ellington go to town, a moment of disco fun that offers temporary relief from the play’s bleak depiction of motherhood
Minetta Lane through February 25
Running time: two hours with no intermission
Written and directed by Erica Schmidt
Scenic design by Amy Rubin, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Cha See, sound design by Justin Ellington, physical movement by Lorenzo Pisoni, voice and text coach Gigi Buffington
Cast: Brooke Bloom, Lynn Collins, Charlotte Surak