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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
KINDNESS
at Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY
By ANDY BUCK

  Christopher Denham and Annette O'Toole

Kindness isn't the only thing on tap in Kindness the new play at Playwrights Horizons from the wildly prolific playwright, novelist, and director, Adam Rapp. Small acts of cruelty crop up just as casually. And it's not always easy to tell which is which.

Christopher Denham , who has collaborated in the past with Rapp, both as an actor and playwright, turns in a heartbreakingly beautiful performance as Dennis, a naive 17-year-old boy dragged along on a whimsical New York trip by a mother trying to outrun the cancer that is consuming her. Denham perfectly captures the flat-toned, cynical speech that thinly covers overwhelming anguish. When Dennis offers the token response "I wish" to a character's inquiry, it's not just a throwaway phrase. It's a glimpse into his aching desires: for a strong, protective father, for instance, and for a time when intimate connection with others didn't seem so elusive.

Rapp clearly intends this piece to be semiautobiographical. Like Dennis, he grew up an athletic but, by his own account, socially awkward teenager in Northern Illinois, in a household where the father was absent. And like Dennis, Rapp suffered through the experience of a mother dying of cancer. Her death in 1997 was the subject of a revealing memoir by the playwright's brother, actor Anthony Rapp (of the musical Rent, which gets some gentle ribbing here, incidentally). Kindness serves as the playwright's turn to pay tribute.

Of course, this being an Adam Rapp story, one is never sure what shadier turns it will take. In his novels and plays, the writer has rarely shied away from the brutal side of human nature-dismemberment, rape, even terrorist attacks. And isn't that a picture of a hammer menacing the cover of the playbill for Kindness? Still, by the end of Act One, the play has been such a tender, funny meditation on death and the family that it's tempting to think, "This is about as close to Neil Simon as Adam Rapp is ever going to get." Whether he maintains that relative lightness through the end is for you to find out.

Suffice it to say that it's worth the journey. The play is one of Rapp's most finely structured works. Although he occasionally has a problem writing second acts that are equal to their first (Red Light Winter and Americn Sligo come to mind), that is not a problem here. And the production, which is directed by Rapp, is strong from start to finish. A minor quibble is with the poor sightlines of Lauren Helpern's set, which hide a couple of crucial plot details from some of the house-left audience.

But the ensemble of actors onstage with Denham is uniformly terrific: as Dennis's mother, Annette O' Toole (perhaps best known as Superman's ma in the TV series Smallville) goes right to the heart without going over the top. Katherine Waterston is riveting as an enigmatic woman who may or may not be a friend to Dennis. And Ray Anthony Thomas turns in a solid, grounded performance as a lonely, kindhearted cab driver.

 

 


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