"We must not touch our idols," Gustave Flaubert warned in Madame Bovary; "the gilt comes off in our hands." Such is the theme of Robert Simonson's intriguing new play Kicker, which will end its limited run on Saturday at the Connelly Theatre in the East Village.
A study on the reverence of celebrity and of journalistic integrity, the play follows the downfall of renowned profiler Michael Gray (Matt Pepper) after his long-awaited interview with his favorite writer turns disastrous. Forced to re-examine his life and choices in light of his idol's harsh criticism, he becomes jaded and bitter with the cult of celebrity that he has helped propagate, putting his career and sanity on the line.
It's certainly an interesting setup, one ripe with philosophical issues and moral dilemmas: Why do we not separate the art from the artist? Why are we so fascinated by celebrities? Why do we want to consider famous people our friends? And while Simonson tackles these issues with some genuine wit and intelligence, he doesn't make it very dramatic. As thought-provoking as the premise for Kicker is, the play itself ultimately lacks sufficiently interesting characters to bring it together. Instead of genuine three-dimensional people with human strengths and flaws, we have merely predictable stereotypes: the jaded journalist, the callous intellectual novelist, the dumb movie star, the ball-breaking female editor, the wise grandfatherly editor, the stuffed-shirt snob journalist, the saintly wife and the star-struck waitress/actress. None of the characters, for all of their wit or wisdom, ever becomes more than a cliché, and few of them are even remotely sympathetic. They shout, they whine, they hurt each other, but they barely seem to grow or learn from their experiences. For all the interesting debates and discussions that the play enjoys, the overall impact of the intelligence is weakened by the lack of character development.
Matt Pepper, as the tormented journalist, does some good character work with what little he is given, and Jonathan Fielding scores some laughs as the snobby and disliked regional writer unaccustomed to swimming with such sharks as these. The rest of the cast finds a good and authentic rhythm to Simonson's words, despite director Brendan Hughes' occasionally awkward and often unnatural staging.
A particular complaint must be lodged against the character of Gray's editor, a shrill, manic, and needlessly bitchy caricature of a professional woman. Career women can be tough, of course, and sometimes even bitchy, but this character is even more stereotypical than the rest, and insultingly so. We've come further than this cliché, and this throwback to a chauvinist's idea of a female in control is offensive.
Simonson has some interesting ideas in this play, and with some polishing and delving (and the toning down of the editor), he'll have a very strong play that not only debates fascinating issues, but uses interesting characters to debate them. I look forward to the next draft: while the current production is flawed, it has enough potential to merit another draft and a revisiting.