'Kin'

Sharp helming, likable leads, sterling supporting cast, and whistle-clean design concept are all offered up in the dubious cause of making narcissism look good.

Playwrights Horizons has squandered considerable resources on “Kin,” Bathsheba Doran’s slick but utterly trivial dramedy about a self-important academic who is wary of committing herself to a serious romance with a personal trainer. Sharp helming, likable leads, sterling supporting cast, and whistle-clean design concept are all offered up in the dubious cause of making narcissism look good.

Helmer Sam Gold (“Circle Mirror Transformations”) has a way of drumming up sympathy for characters you initially want to shoot. But while he works his warmth on absent fathers, alcoholic mothers, depressive friends, and all the other difficult people who figure in the life of a struggling literary scholar named Anna (Kristen Bush, picking up the role Lily Rabe dropped), he doesn’t have much luck with Anna herself.

Doran’s perfectionist heroine teaches poetry at an Ivy League university and is working on a book about Keats’ grammatical usage. (The subsequent publication and howling success of such a book is the scribe’s most ridiculous flight of fancy.) Although Bush struggles to make her charming, it’s a losing battle. Anna is one cold fish, supremely pleased with herself, but severely judgmental of everyone else.

Anna is tough on her morose best friend, Helena, as cute as a potential suicide can be, in Laura Heisler’s shamelessly adorable perf. (“People want other people to be perky,” Helena says, perkily.) And she’s downright cruel to her father, Adam (the stalwart Cotter Smith), a manly Texan and a high-ranking officer in military intelligence who’s got a lifetime of real and imagined sins to live down.

But the snobbery really kicks in with Sean (the immensely appealing Patch Darragh), who works at a gym and spends his free time worrying about his alcoholic mother, Linda (Suzanne Bertish, who makes a human being out of this stereotyped figure), back home in Ireland. He’s a dreamer and she’s a drunk, but you can feel the mutual love and concern in the tender late-night phone calls between mother and son. (“I can hear you being lonely,” she tells him, in Bertish’s honeyed Irish accent.)

Once Anna and Sean get over their hangups about class and education and begin dating seriously, other members of their extended families become caught up in their unlikely romance, including Sean’s Irish uncle, Max (the reliable Bill Buell) and Adam’s dying lover, Kay (Kit Flanagan — and just try to take your eyes off her).

Except for a group portrait at the end and one amusing, if improbable scene involving Helena, a forest ranger, and a bear, the action is confined to two-character scenes. Doran’s brittle humor works well in this limited framework and she’s well served by the precision of the acting.

Set designer Paul Steinberg emphasizes the intimacy of Gold’s directorial approach with two large set pieces that adapt into a series of picture frames. Like Jane Cox’s sharp lighting design, it’s a staging device that keeps the eye tightly focused on each two-handed scene.

But in the end it’s hard to shake the feeling that all this skill has been wasted on an extremely shallow project.(Kristen Bush, picking up the role Lily Rabe dropped), he doesn’t have much luck with Anna herself.

Doran’s perfectionist heroine teaches poetry at an Ivy League university and is working on a book about Keats’ grammatical usage. (The subsequent publication and howling success of such a book is the scribe’s most ridiculous flight of fancy.) Although Bush struggles to make her charming, it’s a losing battle. Anna is one cold fish, supremely pleased with herself, but severely judgmental of everyone else.

Anna is tough on her morose best friend, Helena, as cute as a potential suicide can be, in Laura Heisler’s shamelessly adorable perf. (“People want other people to be perky,” Helena says, perkily.) And she’s downright cruel to her father, Adam (the stalwart Cotter Smith), a manly Texan and a high-ranking officer in military intelligence who’s got a lifetime of real and imagined sins to live down.

But the snobbery really kicks in with Sean (the immensely appealing Patch Darragh), who works at a gym and spends his free time worrying about his alcoholic mother, Linda (Suzanne Bertish, who makes a human being out of this stereotyped figure), back home in Ireland. He’s a dreamer and she’s a drunk, but you can feel the mutual love and concern in the tender late-night phone calls between mother and son. (“I can hear you being lonely,” she tells him, in Bertish’s honeyed Irish accent.)

Once Anna and Sean get over their hangups about class and education and begin dating seriously, other members of their extended families become caught up in their unlikely romance, including Sean’s Irish uncle, Max (the reliable Bill Buell) and Adam’s dying lover, Kay (Kit Flanagan — and just try to take your eyes off her).

Except for a group portrait at the end and one amusing, if improbable scene involving Helena, a forest ranger, and a bear, the action is confined to two-character scenes. Doran’s brittle humor works well in this limited framework and she’s well served by the precision of the acting.

Set designer Paul Steinberg emphasizes the intimacy of Gold’s directorial approach with two large set pieces that adapt into a series of picture frames. Like Jane Cox’s sharp lighting design, it’s a staging device that keeps the eye tightly focused on each two-handed scene.

But in the end it’s hard to shake the feeling that all this skill has been wasted on an extremely shallow project.

Kin

Playwrights Horizons; 198 seats; $70 top

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Bathsheba Doran. Directed by Sam Gold.

Creative

Sets, Paul Steinberg; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Matt Tierney; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; production stage manager, Alaina Taylor. Reviewed March 17, 2011. Opened March 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Linda - Suzanne Bertish
Max - Bill Buell
Anna - Kristen Bush
Sean - Patch Darragh
Kay - Kit Flanagan
Helena - Laura Heisler
Simon/Gideon - Matthew Rauch
Adam - Cotter Smith
Rachel - Molly Ward

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