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Kimberly Akimbo

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If you want to know if age is in the body or in the mind, you need look no farther than Marylouise Burke.

An apparently ageless, facile actress, Burke seems as comfortable in the shoes of the 16-year old Kimberly Lavaco in David Lindsay-Abaire's new play Kimberly Akimbo at the Manhattan Theatre Club as she did in his 2001 Wonder of the World, playing someone several decades older and a few centuries zanier.

But put Lindsay-Abaire and Burke together, and apparently you can do no wrong: She wears Martin Pakledinaz's retro-chic costumes completely casually, whines with unaffected teenage angst, throws wise cracks at her parents, and communicates the joy and fear of her tentative first kiss with a touching innocence.

It's hard to imagine a more natural choice for the story of a young girl whose body ages in appearance four and a half times more quickly than usual. The play is liberally laced with Lindsay-Abaire's own unusual comic style, frighteningly real or fantastically unbelievable, with a little wiggle room in between. Director David Petrarca helps Lindsay-Abaire realize the fast-paced nature of his off-kilter upside-down universe where it snows in April and the opportunity for a witty observation lies around every corner.

Yet even Burke can't remove all sadness from the story. As Kimberly celebrates her sixteenth birthday, she is also reaching the end of her estimated life span; her facing off against parents (Jake Weber and Jodie Markell) preoccupied with their own mortality, a meddling bad influence of an aunt (Ana Gasteyer), and finding her first real friend and possibly love (John Gallagher, Jr.) are among the last things she'll do.

But to Lindsay-Abaire, life is more worthy of celebration than death. But why play games? Why, for example, taunt the audience with what appears to be a catastrophic heart attack at the end of the first act, but allow it no serious repercussions later? Or why have one of Kimberly's central conflicts be a somewhat obvious check-washing scheme that removes most of the sympathy she generates throughout the rest of the show? (Lindsay-Abaire pulled a similar late-show transformation on the lead character in Wonder of the World, to a similarly detrimental effect.)

This makes it feel that Lindsay-Abaire likes his characters only so far as they can serve his needs; their own interests might be better served by more consistent characterizations. The characters are broadly painted, and maybe three-quarters defined. (As Lindsay-Abaire had to cram a lot of quirkiness and exposition into the already svelte running time of 105 minutes, this is not surprising.) So, the actors are required to fill in the gaps. Burke can, and makes Kimberly as cohesive as possible. Everyone else has less of an opportunity, though Weber's understated sentimentality and Gallagher's gawky charm help them be the other two characters most worth watching.

But Gasteyer is one-note throughout; true, Kimberly's aunt isn't easy to love, an established (and not quite reformed) criminal, but Gasteyer doesn't find enough levels in the character to make her essential. Markell's squeaky voice and interesting physical performance (her hands are wrapped up and unusable throughout) allow her the opportunity to give a noteworthy performance, but, unlike Weber, cannot lace her self-involvement with concern for Kimberly.

It's tough, then, to really accept most of Kimberly's family struggles; her issues with her parents (who keep some severe secrets from her) are almost always less interesting than her exploration of life and love with Gallagher's character, Jeff. He provides for the opportunity to allow her emotional age to come closer to her physical age, but Lindsay-Abaire doesn't develop this as fully as he could.

Sometimes, in fact, it seems he's trying too hard to be eccentric, perhaps leaving more important dramatic matters behind. How the show will play with a less adept actress than Burke in the title role is a question that needs to be answered, and eventually will. But Kimberly Akimbo will remain somewhat problematic and unpolished, another piece of evidence proving - as Wonder of the World did over a year ago - that sometimes, with quirkiness, less indeed is more.

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Manhattan Theatre Club
Kimberly Akimbo
Through March 30
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
MTC Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: CityTix at (212) 581-1212