Play It As It Lays Summary, Characters and Themes

Play It As It Lays is a 1970 novel by American writer Joan Didion. It is a stark and unflinching portrayal of disillusionment and alienation in 1960s Hollywood.

The novel follows Maria Wyeth, a young actress who is drifting through life in a haze of drugs and alcohol. She is divorced, estranged from her daughter, and struggling to find meaning in her life. The story is set against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval of the late 1960s, and Maria’s personal struggles are mirrored in the larger cultural landscape.


Maria Wyeth, a young actress residing in Beverly Hills, is committed to a psychiatric ward following the suicide of her close friend, BZ. At the request of her doctors, Maria recounts the events leading to her emotional breakdown.

Maria begins by reminiscing about her childhood in the small town of Silver Wells, Nevada, owned by her father. At eighteen, she moves to New York to pursue acting, not out of ambition, but rather to please her parents. 

There, she meets Carter Lang, a budding director who casts her in his first two films, propelling them both to fame.

Following the tragic death of her mother in a car accident, Maria marries Carter and moves to Beverly Hills. However, the pressures of Hollywood social life weigh heavily on the introverted Maria, exacerbating her distress. 

The birth of their daughter, Kate, who suffers from a brain disorder, brings further grief. Carter confines Kate to a medical facility, dismissing Maria’s attempts to express her sorrow.

As Carter’s career flourishes, Maria’s stagnates. Carter frequently travels for work, leaving Maria alone in their opulent home. To numb her pain, she turns to drugs, alcohol, and meaningless parties, often driving aimlessly on the Los Angeles freeways. 

An affair with a married screenwriter results in an unwanted pregnancy, leading to a forced abortion by Carter.

The traumatic abortion leaves Maria physically and emotionally scarred, her pain dismissed by male doctors who prescribe her opioids. She decides to divorce Carter and, in a desperate attempt to cope with her loneliness, engages in increasingly reckless behavior. 

She steals a car and is later arrested for drug possession in Las Vegas.

Maria’s closest friends, BZ and Helene, a couple she met through Carter, are concerned about her downward spiral. They invite her to the desert where Carter is filming, hoping it will help her. 

However, Maria discovers BZ’s plan to overdose on sleeping pills and, despite her efforts, is unable to stop him.

In the psychiatric ward, Maria claims to find solace, away from the superficial socializing and the painful reminders of Helene and Carter, who have now become a couple. 

Her only longing is for her daughter Kate, and she dreams of a peaceful life with her, reminiscent of her childhood days.

play it as it lays summary


Maria Wyeth Lang

The protagonist of the novel, Maria, is a 31-year-old actress struggling with disillusionment, alienation, and despair. Trapped in a loveless marriage and haunted by the loss of her daughter, she seeks solace in drugs, alcohol, and reckless behavior. 

Maria’s emotional detachment and numbness reflect her inability to cope with the emptiness and superficiality of her life in Hollywood. She is a passive observer of her own life, drifting through events without agency or purpose. 

Despite her struggles, Maria possesses a quiet resilience and a yearning for genuine connection, as seen in her affection for her daughter and her friendship with BZ.

Carter Lang

Carter, Maria’s husband, is a successful film director and a symbol of the hollow glamour of Hollywood. He is self-absorbed, manipulative, and emotionally distant, prioritizing his career over his family. 

Carter’s disregard for Maria’s feelings and his callous response to her suffering contribute to her downward spiral. 

He embodies the patriarchal power dynamics and superficial values that pervade Maria’s world.


BZ, a close friend of Maria and Helene, is a complex and enigmatic character. He is gay but trapped in a sham marriage due to societal expectations. BZ’s wit, cynicism, and self-destructive tendencies mask his deep-seated pain and loneliness. 

His suicide serves as a catalyst for Maria’s breakdown, highlighting the despair that underlies the novel’s glamorous facade.


Helene, BZ’s wife and Maria’s friend, is portrayed as a shallow and opportunistic social climber. She is complicit in BZ’s unhappy marriage and ultimately becomes involved with Carter, revealing her lack of loyalty and empathy. 

Helene represents the superficiality and self-interest that Maria finds so suffocating in her social circle.

Kate Lang

Kate, Maria and Carter’s daughter, is confined to a medical facility due to a brain disorder. She represents lost innocence and the possibility of genuine love and connection in Maria’s life. 

Maria’s longing for Kate underscores her yearning for meaning and purpose beyond the superficial world she inhabits.


Alienation and Isolation

Maria Wyeth’s life is marked by a profound sense of alienation and isolation. 

Despite being surrounded by people in the fast-paced world of Hollywood, she feels deeply disconnected from them. 

Her marriage to Carter is devoid of emotional intimacy, and her attempts to connect with others often result in superficial interactions. 

Maria’s isolation is further intensified by her traumatic experiences, such as her abortion and the loss of her daughter. Her emotional detachment is a defense mechanism against the pain and emptiness she feels, but it ultimately leads to her further isolation and despair. 

This theme highlights the dark side of the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle, exposing the loneliness and disillusionment that can lie beneath the surface.

Identity and Self-Destruction

Maria struggles to define her own identity in a world that constantly imposes expectations on her. 

As an actress, she is expected to conform to certain roles and appearances, both on and off screen. Her marriage to Carter further blurs her sense of self, as she becomes defined by her role as his wife. 

Maria’s rebellion against these expectations manifests in self-destructive behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, and risky sexual encounters. These actions are a desperate attempt to assert her own agency and control over her life, but they ultimately lead to her further unraveling. 

This theme explores the complexities of female identity in a patriarchal society and the destructive consequences of societal pressures.

Disillusionment with the American Dream

Maria’s life in Hollywood is a stark contrast to the idealized American Dream. 

Despite achieving success and material wealth, she finds herself empty and unfulfilled. The superficiality of Hollywood society, with its focus on appearances and fleeting fame, leaves her disillusioned. Her failed marriage, her strained relationship with her daughter, and her struggles with addiction all contribute to her disillusionment. 

This theme critiques the hollowness of the American Dream, exposing the dark underbelly of a society that prioritizes wealth and success over genuine happiness and fulfillment.

The Fragility of Mental Health

Throughout the novel, Maria’s mental state deteriorates, culminating in her hospitalization in a psychiatric ward. Her experiences of trauma, loss, and isolation take a toll on her mental well-being. 

Her attempts to cope with her pain through substance abuse and reckless behavior further exacerbate her mental instability. This theme highlights the fragility of mental health and the devastating consequences of unaddressed trauma and emotional pain. 

It also sheds light on the societal stigma surrounding mental illness, as Maria’s struggles are often dismissed or trivialized by those around her.

Final Thoughts

Play It As It Lays serves as a cautionary tale about the allure and dangers of Hollywood, while also offering a nuanced portrayal of a woman grappling with societal expectations and personal demons. Despite its bleakness, the novel’s ending offers a glimmer of hope, suggesting the possibility of healing and self-acceptance.