BOTTOM LINE: A moving, funny, and deeply personal play about a mother and son and the two strangers they meet while visiting NYC.
Adam Rapp’s new play Kindness opens with teenage Dennis alone in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room doing, well, what teenage boys often do when they are alone in hotel rooms. His mother walks in on him unexpectedly (something that seems to happen a lot in these situations) but is soon off to the theater; meanwhile, Dennis stays back, and while he is out getting ice, a young woman sneaks into his room. While Dennis is meeting one stranger, his mother meets another one- the cab driver whom she invites to the theater in place of her son.
Kindness is one of Rapp’s most intensely auto-biographical plays; indeed, Rapp has said that Dennis is a “younger, more honest version” of himself. Dennis and his mother are from the Midwest (Rapp too), and are in New York to see the fictional hit musical Survivin’, an amusing take-off of Rent, the real hit musical which originally starred Rapp’s brother Anthony. But more significantly, Rapp’s mother died of cancer eleven years ago, and this experience has clearly influenced the direction that Kindness takes.
Rapp has written a moving play about the complex relationship a son has with his mother. Kindness is never predictable, but is also not filled with lots of crazy plot twists, allowing the audience to focus more on the lives of the four characters. Ultimately, while Kindness could easily have become maudlin or else horrifying, I found it to be quite touching. Yet it never takes itself too seriously, and is at times quite funny. I especially liked Katherine Waterston’s performance as Frances, the strange girl who barges into Dennis’s room. Ray Anthony Thomas is also quite good in the smaller role of the cab driver. As the two strangers in the play (Rapp often writes about characters who try to connect with strangers), Waterston and Thomas give beautifully layered performances in which they open up to Dennis and his mother, but only so far.
I also enjoyed Christopher Denham’s performance as Dennis- he was terrific in Rapp’s previous play Red Light Winter, and is also quite good here. But while Denham and Annette O’Toole (Maryanne- the mother) do their best, the mother-son relationship never rang true for me. I think this was mostly due to Rapp’s writing. Many of the characters in Rapp’s other plays are in their 20s and 30s; as written, Dennis and Maryanne seem more like a 20-something man and his 30-something older sister. Plus, while the character of Dennis is supposed to be 17, Denham is clearly much older. Rapp also directed this play, and while I think overall he did a fine job, I wonder if the outside perspective of a different director, one who didn’t write this incredibly personal play, might have helped here.
I enjoyed the design- an amazingly detailed midtown Manhattan hotel room, down to the sheets on the bed and the fire-escape route sign on the door. My one complaint is that this room is much larger than any mid-priced New York City hotel room I have ever seen. While it may be that the space constraints required the set to be as large as it is, I wanted the claustrophobia that would have resulted from a more realistically sized room. But this is a minor point- all in all, I definitely recommend checking into Kindness’s hotel room for a few hours.
(Kindness plays at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, through November 2nd. Show times are Tues-Fri at 7:30pm, Sat at 2:00 & 7:30pm, and Sun at 2:00 & 7:00pm. For tickets, visit www.ticketcentral.com or call (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily). For more information, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org)