I believe it was Chekhov who said that if a hammer appears on stage in the first act, somebody better use it to build a shelf in the second act. Well, Adam Rapp's Kindness contains no carpentry but there is quite a bit of suspense involving the appearance of a hammer. And while the play, directed by the author, is a bit of a cruise to nowhere, it's still an interesting excursion with an odd mixture of tragic realism and broad comedy (at one point someone actually walks into a wall as a gag) gamely played by an engaging cast.
Annette O'Toole plays Maryanne, a frail Illinois mom with a crumbling marriage and a body that's expected to succumb to cancer very shortly. But when the play begins the more immediate issue is whether or not she'll notice the wet spot accidentally left on her jacket by her 17-year-old son, Dennis (Christopher Denham), while he was masturbating to cable porn. (I told you there was broad comedy.) The two are vacationing in New York - set designer Lauren Helpern provides a nicely personality-deprived hotel room - and the anticipated highlight of their trip is a visit to the smash hit Broadway musical, Survivin'!, about a dying woman whose pain is lifted by the magic of music. Descriptions of the show, which make it sound like an awful rip-off of Rent, serve as a running gag throughout the piece.
But the apathetic and sullen Dennis (his mother walks with a cane but he seems to regard her as a crutch) isn't in the mood for high-belted showtunes so Maryanne agrees to leave him at the hotel and invites Herman (Ray Anthony Thomas), the friendly cab driver who mentioned that he's never been to a Broadway show while driving her to the hotel. (Yeah, I know. Just go with it.)
With mom gone for a few hours, Kevin goes to fetch some ice for the bottle of whisky he's been hiding, but following him back inside is Frances (Katherine Waterston), a pretty young woman who gets by serving as arm candy for older men and who is, for mysterious reasons, looking to stay out of sight for a while. The kind of miss who knows how to use her looks and a feigned helplessness as manipulation, she gets Kevin to do an odd favor for her and he opens up to her about, among other things, a dark fantasy of his.
And while Rapp takes us on one or two detours that turn out to be dead ends he also keeps us sufficiently on edge over what's going to happen next. O'Toole is just right as the woman who is in constant pain but is optimistic about finding happiness for whatever time she has left, as is Denham who subtly shows Dennis' well-guarded misery in having to spend his youth as his mom's caretaker. Waterston's slightly eccentric allure makes for an appealing wrench in their relationship and though Thomas' small role doesn't call for him to do much more than smile gregariously and show lots of enthusiasm, he does so with gusto.
Photo of Annette O'Toole and Christopher Denham by Joan Marcus
What a pleasure it was watching the great musical comedy character actor George S. Irving regaling the crowd at Feinstein's during his one-night-only cabaret engagement Monday night. Beginning with the original production of Oklahoma! and including over thirty Broadway shows, his distinctively rich and comically expressive voice can be heard on the cast albums of numerous hits (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bells are Ringing, a Tony-winning stint in Irene) and bringing a bit of class to some less successful ventures (Bravo Giovanni, I Remember Mama, Tovarich).
While the show included expected gems like his Blondes anthem, "I'm Alive, I'm A-Tingle, I'm A-Glow," and fan favorite, "The Butler's Song," that naughty ditty that stopped the show regularly at the York Theatre's recent revival of Enter Laughing (a new and improved So Long 174th Street that just announced a return engagement set for January), there were also pleasures like a tender "Once Upon A Time" (Strouse & Adams), a charming duet with his special guest, the evergreen Dina Merrill, of Lerner and Loewe's "I Remember It Well" and Kander and Ebb's critical query, "What Kind of Man (Would Take A Job Like That)?" performed with grandly comic brio.
On the cab ride home my friend and I agreed we would have loved to hear a bit of "Virtue, Arrivederci," his very funny solo from Bravo Giovanni, but we wouldn't want to lose any of his great stories. I can't repeat the one about John Gielgud here, but I loved the one about when he was on the road with an operetta company in 1941 and saw a newspaper headline that read, "Pearl Harbor Bombed."
His reaction? "I didn't even know it had opened!"
Photo by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.
Posted on November 06, 2008 - by
About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.