Anderson in Venture Theatre's "That Face"

Christie Anderson plays a boozy, but rich Martha in Venture Theatre’s new production ‘That Face,’ which opens Friday.

Venture Theatre is taking a giant step to the left from the silly "Avenue Q" musical to the darkly comic "That Face."

The production opens Friday, April 13, and runs through April 28 in Venture's Black Box. Call the theater at 591-9535 for tickets or show times.

Written by a Brit, Polly Stenham, when she was 19, the production debuted in London in 2007, making Stenham one of the youngest playwrights to have a drama staged there. The character-driven script is so bitingly sharp, it feels more like you are in the character's posh London apartment than sitting in a theater on Montana Avenue in Billings.

It opens with a hazing incident at an expensive London boarding school, but quickly moves back to the home base, the apartment with Martha (Christie Anderson) and Henry (Zach Sheets) lying in her bed. The audience later discovers that Henry is her teenage son. There is no proof of incest between the two, but Martha plays shocking mind games with Henry, who has dropped out of school to be his drunken, drug-addled mother's caregiver. Anderson plays this tricky role with a boozy savvy that can still manage a blurry wit and a ragtag glamor. Early on, Sheets provides some comic relief as the grumpy grownup to Martha's childish antics, but later we see the wounds of growing up too fast.

The only heroes of this dark situation are the teenage children. They have grown up with wealth, but not much else. Mia (Yasmin Morup) is the radical younger daughter in the family, detested by her own mother and on the verge of getting thrown out of school for drugging a 13-year-old girl and helping tie her to a chair in a round of hazing with her mean friend Izzy (Bobbi Kupfner). Morup plays the bad girl with authenticity from her punk outfits to her eye rolls and sharp tongue. Kupfner is frighteningly convincing as a tough-taking, physically aggressive teenager.

Director Robert Brian Wood coaxes some humor from the dark situations, including a family argument that includes the absentee father Hugh (Vincent Raye), who flies in from Hong Kong in a desperate effort to save his family. At one point during the argument, Mia lunges at her own mother and has to be pulled off by Henry. Their dysfunction is so over-the-top it's almost comical.

Many have compared the young playwright to Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee and the influence of Williams' "A Streetcar Names Desire" and Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is noticeable. Yet, Stenham brings commentary on the human condition into a new era with her examination of a modern family in crisis. Wood said he hopes the show serves as a wake-up call for dysfunctional families.

"It really gives voice to the youth in this family," Wood said. "It doesn't come until the end, but we see the result of bad parenting and how important it is to have safety within the family unit. The boundaries they cross unfortunately happen every day in our world."

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