Thanks to the work of scenic designer Steven Royal, the tony lifestyle of Huntley (Cook) and Kate Hartley (Coolidge) is mapped out before a word is spoken. He is an administrator of some kind at the United Nations and she plays the diplomat's wife's role with charm and distinction. As they await the arrival of their daughter Kitty (Barnett-Mulligan) and her latest beau Paul Cook (Wheeler) for dinner, it becomes a diversion to try to figure out what the latter will be like. Disappointed that his non-ethnic name doesn't give them much to go on, Kate imagines that he could be African-American, and the couple riffs ridiculously on shades and hues of blackness. You can feel their letdown when the fresh-scrubbed, Caucasian Wheeler enters. However, that blow pales in comparison to their reaction when they learn the horrifying truth that Paul is (gasp!) an evangelical Christian.
What's a mother to do when her brilliant daughter is willing to derail her own budding broadcasting career to hitch her wagon to the dreams of a charismatic young man intent upon starting a bible school in the Bronx? The gloves come off immediately and Kate girds her loins (lions?) to battle with the Christian for Kitty's heart, soul and salvation. Paul turns out to be a more worthy opponent than she expects, but Kate keeps the wheels turning in her head to find his weaknesses and attack them. Huntley and Kitty are more or less relegated to the cheering sections as things play out, allowing for many delicious scenes between Coolidge and Wheeler. Cook masterfully portrays Hunt's combined exasperation and distance, while Barnett-Mulligan is at her best when Kitty's immaturity and indecision are on display.
Wheeler does a fine job of peeling back the layers of his character to expose his hidden imperfections and he seems to relish the mind games with Kate. As much as he is in competition with her, Paul's real battle is with his own demons and frailties, a battle that Wheeler conveys wordlessly and convincingly. Coolidge is undoubtedly the North Star of Saving Kitty, shining with a brilliance that reflects on everyone around her. The most amazing thing about her performance is how she elevates Kate by underplaying her outrageousness, making her unfiltered, politically incorrect remarks sound almost normal and acceptable. A little bit of air leaks out whenever she leaves the stage (which doesn't last too long), but her exits and entrances always provide a treat.
Gardner shows a keen sense of comedic timing in her pacing of the play, and, lest we get restless during scene changes, the young man (uncredited) who clears and rearranges props is dressed as a waiter and mugs for the audience, sneaking the remains of a glass of wine or miming a tennis serve, while sound designer Jennifer Timms has some good traveling music playing in the background. Lighting designer John R. Malinowski cues a rainy evening, middle of the night and morning with appropriate shading, and costume designer Barbara Douglass provides Coolidge with an array of fashionable outfits that accent Kate's quirky persona.
Coolidge, who grew up in Norwell and graduated from Emerson College, is making her local debut in a rare, for her, leading role. She is more than up to the challenge and, on a sad note, the challenging circumstances she faced on opening night. Over the weekend, she lost her 94-year old father after a lengthy illness, yet was determined to be at the theater for the press opening. Surrounded by her acting family and an appreciative audience, Coolidge showed what she is made of and honored us all.
Saving Kitty, performances through August 2, 2015, at The Nora Theatre Company, Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.CentralSquareTheater.org.
Written by Marisa Smith, Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; Scenic Design, Steven Royal; Costume Design, Barbara Douglass; Lighting Design, John R. Malinowski; Sound Design, Jennifer Timms; Properties Master, Joe Stallone; Dramaturg, Alyssa Schmidt; Associate Dramaturg, Angelica Gonzalez; Stage Manager, Dominique D. Burford; Assistant Stage Manager, Renato Luna Dezonne
Cast (in order of appearance): Jennifer Coolidge, Alexander Cook, Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Lewis D. Wheeler