There is a play within a play within a life onstage at MCC. Christopher Gorman’s “A Letter From Ethel Kennedy” is a heartfelt, perfectly respectable first play. Because it is also his last one — Gorman died of AIDS a year ago — this world premiere overflows with the goodwill of one major promise fulfilled but several others unrealized.
“Letter” is about Kit Conway (Jay Goede), a 39-year-old TV executive who is trying to make amends with mom and dad before he dies and, just as important, finish his autobiographical play about those same parents. I gather the only real chunk of fiction here is the drama’s final act, in which Gorman has essentially written his own obit and imagined a post-funeral meeting between his mother and an ex-lover. As for the title’s missive, it came as a response to Kit’s letter of condolence to the assassinated senator’s widow, written at age 7 in 1968. “How proud your parents must be to have a boy with such a caring heart,” Mrs. Kennedy wrote back. If only Mr. and Mrs. Conway would agree.
The first two scenes are nicely crafted, with Kit in back-to-back conversations with his mother, Bridget (Anita Gillette), and then his father, Jimmy (Bernie McInerney). Laced throughout is a lot of showbiz humor and trivia because Kit, after all, is a homosexual and in the American theater — meaning he knows every musical comedy ever written. Fortunately, amid the Jerry Herman, he also spouts William Shakespeare and James Joyce, and in a novel twist, mom and dad seem not only to understand but appreciate most of the references, at least the straight-scribe ones.
All this banter is set in one of those just-to-the-left-of-a-piano-bar restaurants in the theater district, and if such eateries could hold a copyright, Joe Allen would have a great lawsuit against designer Jeff Cowie and lighting designer Michael Chybowski. There are even posters of failed musicals on the brick walls.
Considering the director, actress Joanna Gleason in her Gotham helming debut, it might have been fun to see “Nick and Nora” up there, but apparently some wounds do not heal. There isn’t a lot of staging required due to the play’s talking-head nature (Gorman’s approach to drama may owe more to his TV background than any theatergoing), but the performances are replete with silent bits of inspired business that invariably draw the evening’s most sympathetic laughter.
Gillette and McInerney are expert at keeping their portrayals contained to that gray area between the two character’s making their very individual cases for parental absolution and Kit’s casting them as villains, literally. Bridget tells her son, “Put in your play that I took you to your first Broadway show!” Gorman has obliged.
As for Goede, he may have taken a misdirected cue from the script’s many references to the Bard. In the play’s opening moments, especially, he plays some gay version of a fool.
In a peculiar reversal of sorts, Stephen Barker Turner as the ex-lover Matthew is wonderfully understated in his brief initial scene. Later, when he reappears for the play’s meandering third-act confrontation with Bridget, he begins mimicking Goede’s hyper-rhythms.
A nifty bit of casting is putting Randy Harrison from “Queer as Folk” into the role of post-teen waiter Casey. The character’s heterosexuality is discovered when he fails to identify Kit’s obscure reference to Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” A less anachronistic sexual litmus test for the younger set might have been for Casey to guess the name of the actress who plays Samantha on “Sex and the City.”