Boston Theatre Works aptly fills its "quirky Off-Broadway play" slot with the New England premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo. This snappy production runs through May 16th at Boston Playwrights' Theatre before giving way the following weekend to BTW Unbound, a showcase of new works to close out BTW's fifth season.
Like Fuddy Meers before it, Manhattan Theatre Club launched Kimberly Akimbo into the vast reaches of regional theatre - not to mention film option hell - by giving it a well cast, well directed, well designed New York production. Those two plays, along with the less rapturously received Wonder of the World, earned Lindsay-Abaire a well deserved reputation for populating the slightly askew everyday world with wacky characters who suffer from a plethora of physical, emotional and social ills.
At the center of this one is 16-year old Kimberly (Judith McIntyre) afflicted with a prettied-up version of a real disease that causes accelerated aging and sends her through menopause four years before she's ready for her first kiss. And in the world of a Lindsay-Abaire play, Kimberly is the normal one. She has to parent her hypochondriac, pregnant mother (Amy Barry) and neglectful, alcoholic father (Marc Carver) while attempting to reform her homeless ex-con aunt (Elizabeth Anne Quincy) and socialize her nerdy classmate (Jacob Liberman) to turn his interest in her from science project to girl friend.
All the elements are there. The story is engagingly off-center. The actors are endlessly charming even though their characters have none. And director Jason Southerland manages to capture everyone's boundless energy in spirited and inventive ways. Even the sets and lights (Caleb Wertenbaker), costumes (Gail Astrid Buckley) and props (Jennifer Bean) are witty and fun. So why doesn't it add up to more?
First off, at MTC the part of Kimberly was played by character actress Marylouise Burke (best known to me as Jack's Mother in the revival of Into the Woods) who won kudos for channeling a believable teenager trapped in the stocky body of the 62-year old woman that she was. McIntyre also exudes all the spirit and angst of a beleaguered 16-year old, but she's a 50-year old who can still shop in the junior department and not look silly. There's a huge element of physical incongruity missing here that the play depends on.
Secondly, the play's blackout sketch structure grows wearisome, despite the cleverness of the set transformations, because we're forced to watch the actors reset the same scene too many times. I'd be curious to hear Jason Robert Brown's music for the original production because the sound designer here (Fay Gerbes) missed the opportunity to try and at least tie everything together musically.
Thirdly, Kimberly Akimbo has no overriding idea to tie all the dysfunctional elements and snippets of thoughts together and bring things to a satisfying end. The closest we come is crazy Aunt Debra telling Kimberly, "I know what life does now. It flies right by ya. And the good things go with it. They don't stop to land in your lap. You gotta grab the good stuff, otherwise it's gone."
This advice propels Kimberly to risk involving herself and her boyfriend in Debra's dubious check cashing scheme intending, at first, to use her share of the proceeds to fund a dream vacation for her parents. When she realizes the new baby is meant to be her replacement, she hightails it out of there in her father's car with a suitcase full of cash and her boyfriend at the wheel.
The play fizzles out after a final confrontation with a hippo in the road on the African Safari at Six Flags Great Adventure. Lindsay-Abaire gets us almost there, but stops short of any of the characters really confronting what's in the road right in front of them.
Kimberly Akimbo produced by Boston Theatre Works now through May 16th at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue (on the Boston College 'B' - Green Line.) Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. (Thursday, May 13th is sold out.) Tickets which are $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors are available on the BTW website www.bostontheatreworks.com, by calling the BTW Box Office (617) 939-9939 or at the door one hour prior to performance. For group sales (10 or more) call BTW at (617) 728-4321.