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Kingdom Come

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 2, 2016


Carmen M. Herlihy and Crystal Finn
Photo by Joan Marcus

As the Internet moves out of childhood and into its uneasy adolescence, stories about it (or at least that use it as a backdrop) have to change as well. Kingdom Come, the new play by Jenny Rachel Weiner that just opened at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre in a Roundabout Underground production, is an excellent example of this. Whereas just a few years ago, perhaps climaxing with Gamergate at its peak, the prevailing question might have been, "What can be done about online harassment?", now the issue is rather more nuanced: "Is it necessarily harassment if both sides are to blame?"

Personally, I'll default to declaring it human, which is the best way to describe Weiner's thoughtful, if imperfect, play and Kip Fagan's inconsistent production of it. The plot beneath the high-tech gloss is all too recognizable to anyone who's, well, not a supermodel. Samantha Carlin (Carmen M. Herlihy) certainly isn't—she weighs some 600 pounds, in fact, and is more or less confined to a bed in the Carson City, Nevada, home her mother pays for. Layne Falcone (Crystal Finn) is rather more mobile, but hardly has a better self-image. She spends her days listening to guided meditation recordings, she can't remember the last time she had a significant other, and she's ancient (33), and her insecurities about all of this have ensured that she's thoroughly plain, inside and out.

Impulsively acting on the advice of her beautiful-blonde-dumb coworker Suz (Stephanie Styles), Layne creates an account on OKCupid, using a fake name (Courtney), fake profession (airline stewardess), and fake photos ("hot but sweet girl" is the Google Images term), which instantly attract attention. Most of it's the wrong kind, of course, but eventually Layne aka Courtney aka DelayedFlight82 meets the perfect man. He goes by the username of kingDOMcome42, he's nurturing and supportive, he's ridiculously attractive (his intricately chiseled six-pack abs are prominent in most pictures of him), and he is, there can be no doubt, the perfect mate. Except for the small wrinkle that he is also secretly Samantha.


Carmen M. Herlihy and Alex Hernandez
Photo by Joan Marcus

Much time is devoted to Samantha and Layne's courtship, and the question of exactly how Samantha acquired those amazing pictures (and keeps getting more) for her profile is answered once we meet the real Dom (Alex Hernandez), who is the Los Angeles-based waiter-by-day-actor-by-night son of Samantha's caretaker, Delores (Socorro Santiago). And things get just as tangled as you expect, with plenty of lies, mistaken identities, and heartbreak to go around.

What Weiner nails are the feelings that drive the Samantha-Layne relationship. She expertly carves the women from raw loneliness, and lets you see how their online fa├žades alternately reinforce or weaken their natural states of being. Her cunning metaphors for a crushing normalcy are morning broadcasts of The Price Is Right for Samantha and mind-numbing office politics for Layne—neither extreme is fulfilling, and happiness will ultimately only be found away from both.

The pair's halting initial conversations together—Samantha mocking in part, Layne as desperate as she is hopeful—give way gently to a more open acceptance of each other and themselves. (Each of these is staged with the performers speaking their lines while accompanied by Darrel Maloney's fast-moving projections of the heavily chat speak onto the walls of Arnulfo Maldonado's properly oppressive Nevada living room set.) The women's e-consummation is alarmingly tender, even absorbing, because, even though we know the impossibility of their union succeeding, we want it to anyway. (The haunting sound that accompanies it, by Thom Weaver, is wonderful.) Weiner has utterly convinced us that these two need that sense of completion just that much. And their difficulties, one of which begins at the end of that same session, and another that comes later as the truth gets harder and harder to hide, are agonizing because of the weight we've learned that even the tiniest interactions carry for Samantha and Layne.

Little else about the play or this mounting of it is as interesting, though. The plot, perhaps egged on by Weiner luxuriating too much in the pulpy movies her heroines love (their joint favorite is the Rob Reiner-Aaron Sorkin politi-schmaltz fest, The American President), becomes increasingly improbable as it gets more complicated, with the events and attitudes that fill the last few scenes stretching credulity well past the snapping point. And Delores and Suz (and, to a lesser extent, Dom) are drawn broadly and irritatingly; if this was to prove why Samantha and Layne so need escape, mission accomplished, but even so, the characters are unlikable almost to the point of being unwatchable.

Even most of the actors are commenting on their roles rather than living inside them. Santiago and Styles have crafted full caricatures, and play them to the hilt, to no discernible emotional effect. And though Layne is written as a bottomless well of tamped-down pain, Finn's portrayal of her is more loud and scattered than anything else: She deploys a lot of shrieks and bulging eyes, when playing things down, as she does to superlative effect at the end, would be far more effective throughout. Only Herlihy and Hernandez get everything right: she because she projects the totality of Samantha's hollowed-out heart and soul without ever degrading into self-pity, he because he, similarly, blends Dom's white-knight and avenging-angel inclinations into a single person believably capable of winning these two broken women's hearts.

Their performances, in other words, are complex, just like Kingdom Come at its best. Each of us is like that, after all, brave in some ways, afraid in others, and in search of some method of equalizing their effects. The Internet appears to many to do that, but is just one more trap, inviting us to experience and inflict hurt. Healing from the inside out may be challenging, but it's the only thing that always works. Samantha and Layne may be in a downward spiral, but they're not irretrievable—they just need each other to provide the balance that's been denied them elsewhere. In its isolated gorgeous moments, Weiner's play shows us why it's so important to be our best, most naked selves when that hand comes reaching to help us back up and back to life.


Kingdom Come
Through December 18
Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: roundabouttheatre.org


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