On the whole, Adam Rapp is a lot more fun when he’s being crude and rude. “Kindness,” however, finds the scribe in a mellower mood, sympathetically observing a Midwestern mother and her son on a sentimental visit to New York. While still writing about adolescent males who use surly behavior to cover their social immaturity, Rapp gives his prototypical protagonist a rare chance to redeem himself. Such stabs at honest, unguarded emotion don’t come easily to the writer, but having proved himself the definitive director of his own work, he pitches a production that cleverly masks the rough spots.
Unlike Rapp’s usual slacker heroes, Dennis (Christopher Denham) comes by his adolescent awkwardness fair and square. He’s only 16. If that weren’t enough to excuse his sullen, inarticulate moodiness, the kid is stuck in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan with his mother, Maryanne (Annette O’ Toole), who, despite her obvious illness, is determined to see this super-duper-successful Broadway musical that promises to be perfectly ghastly.
Put off by her son’s lack of enthusiasm for a show that sounds like a custom-tailored Gerard Alessandrini parody of “Rent” and “Angels in America,” Marianne finds a friendly cab driver named Herman (Ray Anthony Thomas) to accompany her to the theater. That leaves Dennis wandering the halls on his own, perfect prey for someone like Frances (Katherine Waterston), a stunning butterfly who flies into his lonely room and spins a gossamer tale about who she is and what she’s up to.
By the time all four characters have regrouped in designer Lauren Helpern’s cheerless hotel room and are ready to order Chinese food, Rapp has raised some provocative questions about the prickly mother/son relationship he has drawn in such detail. How sick is Mom? (And won’t this Broadway show make her sicker?) Why can’t Dennis find a kind word for her? (Or she for him?) Can these New Yorkers be trusted? Can the Midwesterners survive their New York experience? And who, if any of them, will live to go home?
Rapp has constructed his play to keep the dynamic shifting from scene to scene. At first, we seem to be looking at the primitive love/hate relationship of a mother and son who have settled into their mutually dependent roles. On this level, the play is a drag, what with Marianne’s incessant nagging and Dennis’s childish petulance. Both O’Toole and Denham are formidable pros, but her whine and his whimper are built into the characters and neither actor can get around that.
Once Marianne has gone off to the theater, we are treated to something more interesting — Dennis’ brave attempt to confront the big, bad, beautiful, dangerous city (epitomized by Waterston’s dazzling Frances) on his own terms. If he survives the wild and wily Frances, this lad will be a grown man. And quite possibly, a better, kinder son.
Denham has the sly wit and restless intelligence to play Dennis in all his many moon phases, from peevish baby to judgmental adult. Matched with the quicksilver Waterston (whose vocal gymnastics are as supple as her dancer limbs), the young thesp executes some nimble steps in the character’s maturation process. But, the pity is, after finding his voice, the inarticulate hero has nothing to say.