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The Kidney

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

I must admit that I'm not familiar with many organ donation comedies, but if that's an existing theatrical sub-genre, I hope most of them are like The Kidney.

There's no denying that Hunt Holman's new play, which the Broken Watch Theatre Company is presenting at the Sandi Shurin Theatre, is basically a short skit extended to play length. But unlike so many such plays, it manages to sustain and constantly renew itself - this two-hour play actually has two full hours worth of material, and there's no padding or straining in evidence.

That in itself is a remarkable achievement, but it's not much of a surprise from Broken Watch - this company just seems to be getting better and better. Their willingness to take chances with their work gives everything they do a winning freshness and energy. Those are two qualities that prove vital to The Kidney (their strongest play yet), which could all too easily get out of hand if treated with kid gloves, but which they make look effortless.

It starts from the very beginning, when Mark (Leo Lauer) bursts onstage and declares that he needs a kidney. He's young - late 20s or early 30s - but high blood pressure has caused his kidneys to fail, and he's likely to die in a couple of years if he can't find someone to donate one to him. His plight tears apart his relationships with his girlfriend Kelly (Teresa L. Goding), his brother Tate (Stephen Brumble, Jr.), and his married friends Bill (Andrew J. Hoff) and Helen (Carey Crim), as they vie to be the person who will save his life.

As each person's motives for wanting to give (or not give) Mark a kidney are discovered, Holman skillfully steers the play, which begins as an offbeat comedy, into an in-depth exploration of the nature of compassion and friendship. He never lets the audience down as far as laughs are concerned, but he also raises serious questions about what we ask of others, what we want in return, and how pure our underlying intentions really are.

Beyond that, at times The Kidney even seems to be a thinly veiled examination of the currently uneasy state of political relations within the United States and the world at large. The characters often seem to think that their problems will go away if they do, recalling people's promises to move to another country if this politician or that one is elected. But by the time one of the characters announces he does intend to move (to Norway, for the benefits of its socialist government), the play no longer seems as shallow and dramatically insubstantial as it first appeared.

It's only in the second act that the play seems to falter. The events surrounding the actual transplant, and the life-changing effects it has on everyone, aren't as tight as what sets them up. (One scene, in which Mark confronts his donor while apparently still under anesthesia, is particularly forced.) While the play's final scenes, in which the characters' selfish actions and attitudes catch up with them, aren't completely satisfying, Holman deserves considerable credit for not backing off from his initial idea until he's carried it to its ultimate conclusion.

Director Drew DeCorleto has provided staging for the play that matches Holman step for brisk, wacky step, and allows the show to feel like farce one moment and contemplative drama the next, with no sense of jerkiness or disorientation. The actors are also on the same wavelength - Lauer is the play's anchoring force, and gives the straight performance that allows everyone else to spout their brilliant punch lines. Crim's fussy vegan health-nut Helen, Goding's self-involved Kelly, and Hoff's well-meaning but slightly dim-witted Bill are hilariously broad, yet surprisingly focused.

Only Brumble, who approaches Tate in much the same way Lauer does Mark, has trouble bringing his character to life, and he never quite gels with everyone else. Fortunately, that proves problematic for a only portion of the second act, as the focus of the story shifts from Mark to those around him. Even during the weaker moments, the creativity of Holman, DeCorleto, and the cast shines through to show that The Kidney works, and works well.

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Broken Watch Theatre Company
The Kidney
Through June 27
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Sandi Shurin Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street, 6th Floor
Schedlue and Tickets: 212.397.2918