nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 11, 2008
Adam Rapp's new play, Kindness, is about a 17-year-old boy who has come with his mother from their small-town Illinois home to New York City. They've come because Maryanne, the mother, is dying of cancer—she has perhaps a month left to live—and this trip with her son is sort of her final wish.
But Dennis is, with reason, very conflicted about...well...everything, and even before we meet them he has told her that he doesn't want to go with her to see the Broadway show she's been raving about. So when Kindness begins, we find the two separated: he is watching a porno film on the hotel room television, masturbating; and she has been exploring the city on her own, and has in fact befriended a cab driver (named Herman) who she has invited to see the show tonight.
When Maryanne and Herman have left for their "date," Dennis finds the hotel room suddenly invaded by a stranger, a young woman named Frances, who proceeds to gently tease, taunt, and seduce him. She tells him a tall tale that I assume we're supposed to believe is true. And when Maryanne and Herman return from their show later that evening, Frances is still there (although not for the reasons that you might guess).
The title suggests the intangible wonderful thing that each of the four characters, in their odd and awkward ways, both crave and try to provide to others. But in the world of Adam Rapp, kindness can never be simple or honest or direct, and so there's lots of bitterness and meanness and cruelty in this play, even though some of these may mix with the kindness that is in fact at its heart.
What I like best about the play is its humanity: its understanding that people are essentially much more the same than they are different; the culture wars that dominate the current Broadway musical 13, for example, are nowhere in evidence in Kindness, where a small town middle-aged woman can feel liberated dating a black cab driver and seeing a show about gay and Latino urbanites.
Where I have a problem with Kindness, though, is that I just didn't believe it: why would Maryanne's extended family have allowed her to take this trip alone with her under-age son when she could in fact die during it? And why would Dennis not call the police or the front desk the minute he found the strange woman Frances in his room? Both of these pivotal items feel quite baldly like authorial devices (just as the key plot elements in Rapp's Red Light Winter do). I wish Rapp would shore up his awkwardness in crafting plots, because his characters and the words he gives them to say deserve better.
The production, directed by Rapp, is fine. Christopher Denham is superb as Dennis, convincing us that he's this troubled teenager who has been saddled with problems and responsibilities well ahead of his time; he has some moments of adolescent angst and ridiculousness that are prime. Annette O'Toole is similarly believable as Maryanne, especially in revealing to us this woman's deteriorating health and mental state. Ray Anthony Thomas is charming as Herman, a character I wouldn't have minded seeing more of. Katherine Waterston completes the cast as Frances, a role that unfortunately doesn't make a great deal of sense; Waterston nonetheless is impressive showing us two sides of Frances—the faux sophisticate and the much more insecure, still quite young woman who resides underneath.
Lauren Helpern's realistic set is on-target, though the dimensions of the Peter Jay Sharp stage at Playwrights Horizons are noticeably bigger than a real hotel room's. Other design elements are appropriate.
One final observation: the musical that Maryanne is so eager to see, called "Surviving," is very clearly a parody of Rent. I couldn't figure out why, other than to obtain some gratuitous laughs, Rapp was so intent on poking fun of the show that made his younger brother Anthony famous.