There's this darkly comic, hard-hitting play in town. It's about a middle-aged woman named Martha, the leader of a dysfunctional household. She's abusive, alcoholic, charismatic.
No, it's not a new revival of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But it's in the thematic neighborhood. Polly Stenham, the British author of That Face, which is getting its U.S. premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, actually named Martha in honor of Albee's sacred monster. And in her second play, she named a character Maggie, a wink to another favorite writer, Tennessee Williams. "I like little salutes," she says, "an acknowledgment of your place in the scheme of things." Albee apparently likes them, too: At one point Stenham's actor boyfriend was going to perform in a play by Albee. He got him to sign a copy of one of his plays for her. The inscription read "From one playwright to another."
This would be a good time to mention what every article about Stenham eventually mentions: her age. She is 23. When That Face, her first play, debuted at London's Royal Court in 2007 and subsequently won her a sheaf of critical praise and a shelf of awards, she was 20. She has since written a second play and is working on a couple screenplay commissions.
For an English playwright who enjoyed as early and notable a start, one has to reach back to Sarah Kane, who committed suicide in 1999, when Stenham was 11.
That comparison is fine with Stenham. "I think very few people get that she's actually very gentle," she says of Kane, who, like her, saw her first play produced at the Royal Court. "She's much gentler and poetic than people perceive. I like her work because it's very difficult, but there's an eternal grace to it that's overlooked. It's punctuated with such violence, but inside it there's such longing and agony. I think it's magnificent." Stenham was first exposed to Kane's work — and theatre in general — by her late father, British financier Cob Stenham, who died shortly after learning his daughter's play was going to be produced. "We went to the Bush a lot and the Royal Court a lot. He didn't censor any of it, which I think was a good thing, but some people would disagree."
In spite of the constant playgoing, she never thought of carving out a life in the theatre, even after she wrote That Face. "I didn't connect the dots. I still don't. I'm still flabbergasted about the whole thing."