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NY Theater Reviews

Annette O’Toole and Christopher Denham/PH: Sara Krulwich

TRUE MEANING

By BILL STEVENSON

Adam Rapp writes knowingly about complicated and testy relationships often revolving around various family members. Kindness is no exception.

Adam Rapp has a talent for writing about complicated and often testy relationships, whether they involve family members, friends, or lovers. His latest play, Kindness, is no exception. Its four characters are compelling individually but are much more so when they interact. While it isn't as poetic as Rapp's Nocturne or Red Light Winter (a Pulitzer finalist), Kindness artfully combines humor, pathos, and an unpredictable plot.

The setting is a midtown Manhattan hotel room shared by Dennis (Christopher Denham), a 17 year old who attends a military academy, and Maryanne (Annette O'Toole), his quintessentially Midwestern mother. Visibly weak and using a cane, Maryanne has terminal cancer and hopes to have a fun, touristy weekend despite her illness. She and Dennis frequently butt heads. He's an apathetic, moody teenager who doesn't want to be his mother's caregiver- she's often frustrated with him, her temper flaring because she's so sick.

It sounds like a grim mother-son drama, but Rapp opens it with a funny scene in which Dennis is caught in an embarrassing situation. The playwright also gets laughs every time a character describes the musical Maryanne is seeing, Survivin'! The imaginary show bears an uncanny resemblance to Rent, which starred the playwright's brother Anthony Rapp.

Dennis skips the musical, so Maryanne takes a friendly cab driver, Herman (Ray Anthony Thomas). Left alone, Dennis meets a flirtatious woman named Frances (Katherine Waterston) who wears a floral-print dress and admits that she lives off of wealthy older men. A young femme fatale, Frances doesn't take herself too seriously. After all, she dances around the hotel room to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit."

It's hard to see what the striking Frances would see in the unworldly Dennis. And when we learn that she's gotten herself into some trouble, it doesn't make sense that she would hang around the hotel for so long. Frances and Dennis' scene together in the first act is amusing but drags a bit. Other than the occasional slow pacing, however, Rapp did a good job directing his play.

The four actors are all just right for their characters and work together beautifully. Denham shows Dennis' mopey, immature side but also shows how hard he's taking his mother's illness. O'Toole is equally good, and the two actors are convincing as mother and son even though they don't look alike. Though Waterston can't make everything Frances does entirely believable, she's fun to watch and expertly delivers her second-act monologue. Thomas is on stage the least but quickly establishes Herman as being much nicer than almost any actual cabbie.

Like most of Rapp's plays, Kindness has a small cast and a rather claustrophobic setting. Small-scale, intimate drama may be his specialty, but it would be nice to see him try a more ambitious, wide-ranging play with more than a handful of characters. Rapp has plenty of talent. Maybe it's time for him to paint on a bigger canvas.