Marin Hinkle plays Amy, star student Luce's adopted mother, in this "well-acted" play written by JC Lee. Hinkle graduated from Brown as an undergraduate, and went on to receive her Masters from NYU. She has appeared in numerous films and television shows, most notably appearing on Two and a Half Men for nine seasons.
Star student, sociopath or a little of each? That is the troublesome question raised in “Luce,” a thoughtful, well-acted new play by J C Lee that opened on Monday night at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater. The title character, winningly played by Okieriete Onaodowan, is a 17-year-old charter school student in an unnamed American suburb whose teacher, Harriet (Sharon Washington), becomes alarmed at the choice Luce makes when he’s given an assignment to write about a historical figure.
Prompted to “think outside the box,” as Harriet puts it, Luce has selected a European nationalist from the 1970s who was involved in terrorism. Harriet calls in Luce’s adoptive mother Amy (Marin Hinkle) for a conference, at which Harriet also reveals that, after reading the essay, she decided to search Luce’s locker. She hands Amy a bag of explosives — fireworks, yes, but illegal ones and potentially harmful — that she discovered there.
“This isn’t the boy I know,” a shaken Amy says after perusing the essay. That quick response can, of course, be interpreted in a number of ways: Luce isn’t the kind of kid who would seriously engage with such offensive ideas. He’s just being provocative. Or, on the other hand, might he be deeply maladjusted, and might his parents be completely unaware of the shadow side of their apparently good son?
As it unfolds in a series of fluidly written scenes, “Luce,” directed by May Adrales for Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3program, hugs tightly the ambiguity of Luce’s behavior. Amy and her husband, Peter (Neal Huff), adopted Luce when he was a young boy from a war-torn Congo. He appeared to have put the trauma of his early years behind him, and is now doing well in school. He’s a football star with a bright future.
Given that they are the kind of liberal-minded parents who would take on the challenge of adopting a troubled child, it’s probably natural that Amy and Peter would shy away from confrontation, and Amy questions whether searching his locker was appropriate at all. Both Ms. Hinkle and Mr. Huff persuasively suggest how difficult it can be for parents today to know how much privacy to allow their children in a world where kids are keeping less and less to themselves, at least among themselves. (Dramas about well-meaning parents grappling with newfangled problems are becoming a staple offering at LCT3, with last season’s gay-tyke play “A Kid Like Jake” and the previous “All-American,” about a high school girl on the football team.)
The couple’s unwillingness to confront Luce also allows Mr. Lee to keep the question of his behavior tantalizingly unclear for virtually all the play’s 100-minute running time. But it also stokes frustration and comes to feel a little contrived. Why not, after all, simply ask him what he was thinking when he wrote the essay? (No one ever does.) Amy and Peter seem to be deeply involved in his life, so why suddenly lose the keys to the helicopter in this crucial moment?
When Harriet calls to complain that she believes Luce has threatened her — he made a sly joke about loving the Fourth of July (Luce is, if nothing else, a genius at staying just on the right side of offensiveness) — Amy and Peter finally bring up the matter of the fireworks. Luce shrugs it off, explaining that the guys on the football team share lockers, and it wasn’t his stuff. (Less explicable, by the way, is Harriet’s handing over of the explosives to Amy, which comes to seem a device necessary to generate suspense.)
It is, in a way, dramatically fruitful for Mr. Lee to keep subtly altering our perspective on Luce’s behavior. (And, as the grim stories of seemingly good kids who do very bad things continue to crop up in newspaper headlines, perhaps it’s realistic, too.) But as written by Mr. Lee and played by Mr. Onaodowan, the character never comes across as remotely threatening or disturbed. He’s coolheaded, eloquent in discussing the civil liberties of students and has an entirely rational explanation for everything. He doesn’t even rise to much anger when it appears he’s suspected of harboring potentially dangerous thoughts.
By the end, we are kept just where Luce’s parents are: wanting to believe the best but unable to eliminate the possibility that the shining achiever is really a dangerous deceiver. Depending on your view, this could be admirably open-ended, or a dramatic fizzle.
By J C Lee; directed by May Adrales; sets by Timothy R. Mackabee; costumes by Kaye Voyce; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; sound by Jill B C Du Boff; stage manager, Charles M. Turner III; general manager, Jessica Niebanck; production manager, Jeff Hamlin. An LCT3 production, presented by Lincoln Center Theater, André Bishop, producing artistic director; Adam Siegel, managing director; Paige Evans, artistic director/LCT3. At the Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com, lct3.org. Through Nov. 17. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
WITH: Marin Hinkle (Amy), Neal Huff (Peter), Olivia Oguma (Stephanie), Okieriete Onaodowan (Luce) and Sharon Washington (Harriet).