Two hours stretches by about 110 minutes the amount of time I’d ever want to spend with the Lawrences, the small-town, white trash family at the center of Lucy Thurber’s Scarcity. Herb, the dad (played by Matthew Bonacci), is a slovenly unemployed drunk who makes unseemly passes at his precociously intelligent 11-year-old daughter Rachel (Hannah McGee) when he’s not picking fights at the local bar or puking on Louie, the town cop (played by Michael E. Moats). Martha, the mom (played balls to the wall by Jaime Slavinsky), lives a life of loud desperation, alternately needy, smothering, and verbally abusive. Billy, the 16-year-old son (Michael Young), is a street-savvy scrapper like his dad (first time we see them, both are bleeding), but he’s also a math whiz who has landed a coveted spot in the local “progressive” gifted and talented program. When they’re not hurling insults and dropping the f-bomb, they’re peremptorily ordering each other around in broad Massachusetts accents (“Get me a cup of cawfee”; “Gimme anothah beah”).
So it comes as something of a surprise that the priggish teacher Ms. Roberts (played by Meagan Reagle) doesn’t high-tail it out of their beer-bottle-and-cigarette-strewn hovel the moment she’s got the opportunity. But then, as written by Thurber, she’s the most stupidly tone-deaf well-educated upper-class snob ever to grace the stage. She’s given Billy a ride home, ostensibly out of an interest in his academic success, but, as is made quickly clear, she is besotted by what she perceives as his “sensual intelligence.” Seeing her as his ticket to freedom, Billy exploits her sexual interest in him to get her to help him to a scholarship to a private boarding school.
There’s comedy in the setup here, and certainly many moments of the play are funny, but Thurber’s writing is tonally all over the map, making it challenging for the cast to find the proper register. The dialogue swings from broad caricature to deeply felt sincerity, often within the same scene. Much of the play calls for a realistic playing style, but then a good deal of the action and characterization beggars belief. For example, at one point Herb, so drunk he can barely walk, lurches over to Martha (who is scrambling through her purse for…cigarettes?) and starts pawing her aggressively. The kids are in the next room, it’s the middle of the day; he’s unshaven, looks like he hasn’t showered in days, and presumably reeks of booze, and what is her response? She opens herself to him like a flower, and a few moments later they are having loud passionate sex in the back room while Billy and Rachel yell at them to keep it down. Yeah, right. More offensively, later in the play Thurber has the teacher openly wound the family’s pride by mentioning that her father will cover Billy’s expenses at the boarding school, despite Billy’s warning to her to keep that bit of news to herself. Her cluelessness would be funny if it weren’t so insulting to both our intelligence and hers; the character may be “stupid” (as Rachel observes), but such a social imbecile belongs in a play that sets itself more firmly in the kind of comic world created and inhabited by actors like Will Ferrell or Melissa McCarthy. Thurber seems to have been unable to decide whether she wants to mock her working-class subjects, satirize them, or pay tribute to their dilemmas and struggles, with the result that we never quite know what the play is really about.
The Organic Theater ensemble rises gamely to the challenges posed by Thurber’s script. Slavinsky brings a lot of energy and verve to her portrayal of Martha, although she seems to have confused near-constant stroking of other people’s hair with the expression of maternal care. Moats gives a sympathetic portrayal of Louie, the cop in love with Martha, and Young brings charm to the role of Billy. One of the better performances of the evening comes from the young McGee, who lets us see both the self-protective shell that keeps Rachel sane, and the vulnerable, frightened child who has had to build that shell in the first place.