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Children yearning to escape their dreary parents has been a common literary theme since the Book of Genesis. In Scarcity, a plot-light, dysfunctional-family study by Lucy Thurber, the dead-end setting is in the hills of western Massachusetts, and the kids mismatched with their loutish parents are named Rachel and Billy.

Eleven-year-old Rachel is intellectually advanced, although still enough of a little girl not to realise what her father’s ogling comments towards her may portend. Sixteen-year-old Billy is also the subject of an adult’s admiring eye: Miss Roberts, one of his instructors at the local school, urges him primly to apply to a posh boarding academy, but her demeanour camouflages unrulier impulses.

The schoolteacher’s encouragement of her pupil’s sensuality (“You’re so connected to your body”) has been derided in some quarters. The language of seduction, however, is often tangled in platitude, and the challenge of such a scene is how well the actors make the clichés seem real.

As Miss Roberts, Maggie Kiley is up to the task; her feline delivery carries a comic kick. As the maths prodigy Billy, Jesse Eisenberg is equally skilled, although after his recent big-screen performance opposite Richard Gere in The Hunting Party the role of a mid-teen seems a little too junior for him.

Even at the Atlantic Theatre, the House of Mamet where authentic working-class concerns are admirably more evident than at off-Broadway’s other marquee venues, the characters of the parents, Martha and Herb, do not always ring true. Unlike Miss Roberts’ dialogue, Herb’s pastimes (beer, bowling, brawling) are platitudes unrelieved by believability.

That doesn’t mean Michael T. Weiss, as Herb, doesn’t demand that we watch him. Unlike many other stage-hatched actors, he hasn’t acquired ineradicable bad habits from years in television.

Kristen Johnston, as the mother, has never surrendered her stage chops. That she treats her children as adults feels absolutely right for the character. That despite their precocity they remain mired in confusion is also touching, especially in one scene when they are forced to listen to their parents having noisy sex offstage. How the kids respond to this moment conveys both the humour and the sadness of Scarcity, a play that manages to keep forging connections despite its sometimes wobbly tone.
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