The Off-Broadway drama of familial loyalty, class status and personal aspirations began Aug. 29 with Kristen Johnston as a mom who cannot pull herself away from the magnetic force of her dysfunctional world. She is easily seduced by her deadbeat husband (played by Michael T. Weiss) and financially supported by her hungry cousin (Todd Weeks), who has more than benevolence on his mind.
Sex is used as an instrument of power by most of the play's characters. Mom uses her sexuality to keep her cousin attentive as a provider, and her son, played by Jesse Eisenberg, picks up on the lesson: He, too, uses sex, but not to make homelife better — he wants a scholarship ticket out of town.
The play is not a completely dark ride. The braying characters' behavior prompts the sort of laughter that TV's "Roseanne" earned for years.
The troupers directed by Jackson Gay include Maggie Kiley (Atlantic's The Lesson, Frame 312) as an overly attentive high school teacher; Meredith Brandt as the younger daughter, also eager for escape but without the tools; and Miriam Shor (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) as the cousin's angry wife.
Weiss is known for TV's "Pretender" and the film "Jeffrey"; Johnston came to wide fame on TV's "Third Rock from the Sun"; Eisenberg was lauded for his work in the film "The Squid and the Whale." Performances of Scarcity continue to Oct. 14.
"Set in rural western Massachusetts, Scarcity tells the tale of two siblings [Meredith Brandt and Jesse Eisenberg] whose aspirations to escape the confines of poverty and small town life come into direct conflict with their sense of family responsibility," according to Atlantic notes. "When 16-year-old Billy [Eisenberg] is afforded an opportunity to change schools and move out of town by an unusually attentive young teacher, his family [parents Kristen Johnston and Michael T. Weiss] starts to unravel around him. This raw, emotionally rich world premiere new drama from playwright Lucy Thurber explores the stark reality of how class in America shapes our very image of ourselves."
Without giving too much away, Thurber told Playbill.com, "Scarcity is about the pull between the loyalty you feel for your family and the loyalty you feel towards your own personal dreams."
Stories about American family life are so often focused on the middle class, upper middle class or the rich. Did Thurber go into Scarcity specifically wanting to look at poverty and class, or did the family come first and their "situation" come second?
"I'm not sure how to separate the two," Thurber said. "Scarcity is about a family that is living in poverty. I wanted to write a play about love, loyalty and the culture of poverty in rural America, the family and the scarcity model are intertwined."
In the play, the family lives below the poverty line, and accepts welfare.
"My first four plays are about class in America," Thurber said. "There are so many un-seen subcultures in America and I happened to grow up among the rural poor [in western Massachusetts]. I wanted to write stories about the people I loved growing up and the people I left behind in the country."
The play's original title was Innocence is a Sin, "which was a horrible and heavy-handed title," she said, adding, "I changed the title to Scarcity because of this definition: In economics, scarcity is defined as 'a condition of limited resources and unlimited wants and needs.' In other words, society does not have sufficient resources to produce enough to fulfill subjective wants. Alternatively, scarcity implies that not all of society's goals can be attained at the same time, so that trade-offs are made of one good against others."
Thurber's play Stay was presented Off-Broadway last season; her other plays include Where We're Born, Ashville, Killers and Other Family and Monstrosity. She is a member of MCC Playwrights' Coalition, Primary Stages writing group and New Dramatists.
Jackson Gay returns to Atlantic, where she directed the Pulitzer Prize finalist production of Rolin Jones' The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow and Kia Corthron's Master Disaster for the 10x20 one-act festival at Atlantic Stage 2.
The design team features scenic design by Walt Spangler, costume design by Ilona Somogyi, lighting design by Jeff Lyons and sound design by Daniel Baker.
Performances continue to Oct. 14. Scarcity plays Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM at Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street.
Tickets for main stage productions are $55 and are available by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or at ticketcentral.com.
For more information visit www.atlantictheater.org.