Talkin' Broadway HomePast ColumnsAbout





Off Broadway


Kin

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kin
Patch Darragh and Kristen Bush.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Who says you can't pick your family? The ten characters in Bathsheba Doran's marvelous new play Kin, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, prove that everyone does exactly that. By choosing those with whom you surround yourself, whether blood relations or otherwise, you're defining the terms on which you face the world, the army that accompanies you into your most difficult struggles, and the sympathetics with whom you'll share your greatest triumphs. On some level we all know this. But Doran's play, especially as superbly directed here by Sam Gold, reminds you of both its paramount importance and how easy it is to miss in wayward instances.

Over the course of nearly two intermissionless hours, we observe how a group of supposedly disconnected people are, in fact, as close as human beings can and must be. Yet their relationships are defined almost entirely by their off moments: less what they say to each other than what they say about each other, not what they do when action is required but what they do before and after the incident in question. Doran paints such a shockingly full picture of this group, it's hard at times to remember that she uses almost no direct strokes. Or, as a character states late in the play when trying to help another find herself: "Seemingly insignificant details result in beauty."

In that way, the unusual Kin most deftly recalls Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, one of the best plays of 2009, which related an intricate interconnection of feelings among five people who never said exactly what they meant. That play was also produced by Playwrights Horizons and, hardly coincidentally, directed by Gold, who with other works as diverse as The Coward and Dusk Rings a Bell, is rapidly assuming his role as the most valuable and most vivid director of understatement in New York.

Gold's talents are exactly what this play needs. At first, all it seems that early-30s lovers Anna (Kristen Bush) and Sean (Patch Darragh) have in common are their disappointing past relationships, she with a professor colleague in Columbia University's English department, he with a self-abusive girl who almost literally drank herself to death. They don't even share cultural backgrounds: She's American, the daughter of an Army colonel and a mother who died many years earlier; he's a personal trainer, raised by a mother who suffered a personal tragedy when he was a boy, and nearly destroyed the entire family as a result. Because Doran keeps them apart almost entirely, we do not see how their union could ever work out.

Kin
Suzanne Bertish and Cotter Smith.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Yet as events unfurl, we see that what they share is a complex support system that wants them to succeed, whether they know it or not. Anna has an intense friendship with Helena (Laura Heisler), a failing actress who's crippled by annoying amounts of need and depression only until Anna will crumble without a shoulder to cry on, at which point she becomes the sturdiest of rocks. Sean's family consists now of little more than his mother, Linda (Suzanne Bertish), and uncle, Max (Bill Buell), neither of whom can understand what he sees in a woman who's penning a book about Keats's use of punctuation (seriously), but who will let nothing including themselves interfere with his happiness.

To communicate the evolution of Anna and Sean's partnership over seven years almost entirely from the wings we never see the couple meet, date, or sleep together, for example demands not just outstanding actors, but a keen understanding of the flow of unstated emotions that drive all the elation and heartbreak everyone must endure. Gold possesses this quality in abundance, letting it run wild only in isolated moments, as when Anna is sparring with her father, Adam (Cotter Smith), over a cryptic entry in her mother's diary. Otherwise, the control is extraordinary, with the most powerful scenes being the most unexpected: Helena's near-breakdown at Anna's launch party, Sean's last-ditch reunion with his self-destructive ex (Molly Ward), and, most movingly, Linda conveying her earned but uneasy grace to Anna and her father just before the kids marry.

Bertish may give the most sculpted and satisfying performance, so gently modulating Linda's evolution from despondency to reignited hope in the world that her journey (again, conducted almost entirely in the background) becomes its own explosive subplot. But Bush and Darragh are charming as the reluctant lovers, she a picture of city-weary smartness and he embodying the essence of old-world know-how. Smith, Ward, and Kit Flanagan, as Adam's dying friend Kay, strike the cleanest and clearest notes in their roles as the more serious onlookers. Buell, Heisler, and Matthew Rauch, playing both Anna's ex and Helena's unwitting backwoods savior, tend to pile on the comedy a bit too strongly.

But they're reined in for the most part by Gold and Doran, working in splendid concert to keep each of the play's 20 breezy scenes resolutely real. Even designers Paul Steinberg (set) and Jane Cox (lights), get into the act, morphing the frame-like wagon on which most of the play unfolds into an eerily accurate vista of the cliffs of Donegal for the evening's climax. Flooding the stage with dark and mist, they change the theater from a place capable of holding everything and everywhere into a microscope that can examine only these two worthy people at the beginning of their exciting and terrifying adventure together.

Anna and Sean's problem is the one that can easily afflict us all: getting lost in life merely by living it. All they can see are the little things that never worked out, the disappointments that can so easily drive them to despair. Gold and Doran, however, keep our gaze fixed on what matters most. "It's awful, isn't it?" Anna asks, soon after she and Sean first meet. "Getting to know someone." Maybe that's the case in the real world. But in the rarefied universe of Kin, it's nothing short of magical.


Kin
Through April 3
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: www.ticketcentral.com