Kernel of Sanity
nytheatre.com review by James Comtois
April 15, 2009
Kermit Frazier plays with ideas of race relations, how heroes often have feet of clay, and the need people have for validation in his play, Kernel of Sanity.
Joel Nagle plays Frank, a white semi-retired actor who has burned himself out with booze, drugs, and sour grapes. Living in a house he rents from his parents and earning income from scamming the Social Security Administration for mental disability compensation (it only took a couple therapy sessions from a complicit quack shrink), he spends his days getting very drunk and high and "working" on his masterwork (which is really just a series of semi-coherent self-righteous rants). He uses the age-old excuse that Hollywood didn't reject him, but that he rejected Hollywood. Sure, sure.
Frank's girlfriend, Rita, tries to get him to do something with his life, but realizes she's fighting an uphill battle. She wants to shake him from his inertia but you get the impression that she wouldn't quite know what she'd do with him if he became proactive with his life. After Rita gives Frank news that she's pregnant, they're met with a surprise visit from Roger, a young black actor who once acted with Frank in a stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a few years back. Roger is on his way to California and decided to take a detour to see his old acting colleague/idol.
As Rita and Frank talk with Roger, we realize Roger's really there to settle some unfinished business between him and Frank.
Or maybe not. Maybe he just wants Frank's approval. Or maybe he just wants to prove to himself he doesn't need Frank's approval. To be honest, it's a little unclear. The climactic scene is tonally all over the map (what Roger tells Frank and Rita, and more importantly, what he eventually does, turn out to be red herrings...I think) and a bit muddled. It touches on racial tensions—Roger feels he's been living in Frank's shadow—and their somewhat rocky past acting together, but only slightly. Even as I think now about the show, I'm still not 100% sure what the point of Roger's visit was. In fact, Roger's still a bit of a mystery to me. For example, early on, Frank notices Roger is driving a red Camaro. How did he get such a nice ride? Roger's response: "It's a long story." Long or short, it's a story he never tells.
Director Petronia Paley does a fine job with the play, although she makes some choices I found a little confusing. Although this is a play that seems to be very rooted in the real world, it seems as though there are a few scenes that deal with surrealism or breaking the fourth wall. But I don't really know if that's what was going on.
I'll give an example. In one scene, Frank exits the living room to fix everybody drinks, leaving Roger and Rita alone together. After they talk for a bit, the lights change very minutely, and they start dancing. Now, is this supposed to be really happening with these characters or not? I couldn't tell. And if it is supposed to be a moment of magic realism/surrealism (i.e., if these characters are not really dancing), who's imagining this? And why? If it's supposed to be played straight (i.e., they really are dancing), why would they be?
However, I enjoyed watching these three very disparate people interact through the course of the 90 minutes that the play progresses. This is also due to the solid acting in this piece. In addition to Nagle's authentic and jittery performance as Frank (have you noticed that lazy stoners can never sit still?), Chaz Reuben plays Roger with a lot of charisma and compelling stage presence, and Madeleine James is quite convincing as Rita, a woman who is both at the end of her rope with her boyfriend, yet unable to let him go.
Despite finding some aspects of the show confusing, I still found Kernel of Sanity engaging. At its core is a nice, low-key drama about people who protect themselves from the world through self-delusion, and resort to blaming others for their lot in life.