nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 11, 2005
The best scene in Kicker, Robert Simonson's new meditation on celebrity and media, is also its funniest. It takes place in Balthazar, a trendy and expensive restaurant in SoHo; here, Michael Gray, Kicker's protagonist, has come to interview hot rising movie star Boston Cameron. Michael is a journalist for a magazine called "Persuasion" who specializes in—indeed, is one of the recognized best people in the world at—the celebrity interview. But this one, with the not-so-bright but very self-involved Boston, isn't going well, and when a waitress/wannabe-actress named Trudy more or less glues herself to the handsome actor, Michael blows his top. Boston departs the scene, and Michael is left alone with Trudy, who yells at him for ruining her "chance" to get to know Boston. She nonsensically orders Michael to make amends by introducing her to Stephen Sondheim, who is lunching in the restaurant with Günter Grass. The improbability factor escalates and Michael manages to make a gargantuan scene (and a fool of himself). It's hilarious.
It's also cunningly satirical: even though we know that most savvy NYC actress/waitress types would never lower themselves to coddle a famous person, it's refreshing to see Trudy and Michael act like lunatics in service of one of America's favorite time-wasting pastimes, e.g., celebrity worship. One only need glance at the headlines any day of the week to understand how big this industry has become: this morning on MSNBC, for example, there are no fewer than six front-page links to Michael Jackson stories. Kicker takes aim at what the celebrity culture does to people and institutions—how it makes insiders who promote and sell celebrities' images jaded and bitter; how it has reduced public discourse in general and popular journalism in particular to a lowest-common-denominator ethos where weighty ideas are sacrificed in favor of fluffy, thought-free hype.
This is what's best about Kicker. Another scene, in which Michael and a magazine old-timer named Bud Endicott, a journalist-turned-editor, offers trenchant treatment of the decline of seriousness in our culture, with melancholic woe more than anything else.
But there's another storyline in Simonson's play that makes the piece somewhat problematic. This involves Michael himself succumbing to the hero worship he generally seems to despise. Jack Finch Telsey is an acclaimed novelist whom Michael admires a great deal. Michael angles for an interview with Telsey, and is surprised and disarmed when Telsey greets him with what looks like authentic bonhomie and charm. The novelist compliments the journalist on his work, gives him expensive scotch, and makes casual invitations for future get-togethers; the interview lasts seven hours. Michael is taken in (not without reason: seven hours!) and concludes that Telsey genuinely likes him; that he and his idol can be friends.
But of course, that's not what Telsey believes—he, apparently, is just a great interview (this is where Simonson seems to be straining credulity: seven hours?). Michael takes Telsey up on his supposed offer to meet again over coffee and is rebuffed, first politely and then not-so-pleasantly-but-firmly. Michael should know better, but he's crushed; calamities—including the catastrophic meeting with Boston Cameron that I mentioned earlier—pile up and it looks like Michael's career is ruined. We're supposed to be on Michael's side throughout, but it's hard to do that given the fact that he has15 years of experience in celebrity journalism—how can such a cynic also be such an innocent? Nevertheless, a lot of the points that Simonson is able to make as he spins out Michael's story—about the sometimes uncomfortable symbiotic relationship between "press" and "talent"; about the authentic desire to actually be able to like the brilliant artists we admire—are resonant and worth hearing.
I think Michael's story would be more believable to us if Matt Pepper (who plays Michael in this production) and James Lloyd Reynolds (Telsey) switched roles. Pepper, lean and aloof with a prematurely grey head of hair, is almost resolutely unlikable as Kicker's hero; Reynolds—handsome, affable, and looking a good 15 years younger than Pepper—would seem a far better choice for leading-man-to-root-for. The age discrepancy is particularly jarring: surely a Michael who we could believe had some naivete/idealism still inside him (i.e., a relatively young one) makes more sense than one who seems to be so much more experienced and jaded than the famous novelist he is so excited to interview.
The rest of the cast is, alas, disappointing for the most part, as well. Only Liam Mitchell as Endicott really delivers a sure-footed characterization; others' work is too broad and unsubtle, even for the places where Simonson lets his play get happily outlandish. Director Brendan Hughes's pacing is sluggish throughout.