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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Saving Kitty Delivers Delightful, Laugh Filled Entertainment


Sarah Nealis, Judith Hawking and John FitzGibbon
Saving Kitty succeeds as a light, laugh-filled summer's entertainment. Intriguingly, it audaciously flirts with being politically incorrect. One would hope that author Marisa Smith will revise her almost brand new play (it has received one previous production) so that her protagonists, or should I say antagonists, would more accurately reflect the issues dividing progressives and conservatives. More about that later.

Set in a posh Manhattan apartment on Fifth Avenue, Saving Kitty is a 21st century variation of the Stanley Kramer film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Proto-liberals Hartley Huntley, director of the United Nations Department of Education, and his wife, former soap opera diva Kate, are awaiting the arrival of their daughter Kitty, a television news producer, and her new swain Paul Cook whom they are meeting for the first time. After dinner, Kitty and Paul will be sleeping over.

Shortly after Kitty and Paul's arrival, Paul reveals that he is an evangelical Christian theologian, and, moreover, that he is about to open a bible school in the Bronx. Although Paul makes it clear that he is not a fundamentalist, Hartley and Kate's liberal tolerance does not extend to any evangelicals or, by inference, any conservative. Paul believes in evolution ("with God behind it") and separation of church and state. Both Hartley and Kate barrage Paul and Kitty with acerbic remarks. Kate: "If you don't like lamb, I have fishes and loaves in the freezer" and Kate to Kitty: ("You've become) Ann Coulter's evil twin." Kate tells Paul that Kitty had a "relationship" with her lesbian professor and that she is a bad cook. When Kate and Hartley learn that Paul and Kitty are getting engaged, they reveal to Paul that he is the fourth man to whom Kitty has been engaged.

And it is not that Smith fails to skewer conservatives. When Paul glibly puts forth, "If you don't believe in Islam, an Islamist will cut your head off. If you disagree with a Christian he'll pray for you", Hartley succinctly responds, "That's interesting, Paul, very black and white."

Over the course of the night and the next day, Kitty and Paul's relationship hits a snag when, after having agreed not to consummate their relationship until after marriage, they joyfully succumb to their desires, only to then disagree as to whether they should go back to celibacy until they are married. Although this is not the most efficacious solution to engendering conflict between the young lovers, it would do, if only Smith would find a clearer, more sensible resolution to the matter than we have at present.

The central role here is that of Kate. Kate careens much further off the tracks than does Paul, and gets to deliver the lion's share of Marisa Smith's hilariously loopy diatribes. Judith Hawking finds the sweet spot in portraying Kate as more than a bit maniacally unhinged. This permits us to laugh rather than cringe at her extreme intolerance as well as her attempt at seducing Paul. Happily, in today's less staid culture, mature women are more alluring, and more interested in being so, than ever.

John FitzGibbon is delightfully to the manor born as he harrumphs about the stage in the role of Hartley. FitzGibbon, and Smith's dialogue, manage to convey the impression that Hartley's harrumphing has increased as a direct result of his failing libido. Sarah Nealis and Christian Pedersen provide first rate support as Kitty and Ben. Both are appealingly earnest, needy, sincere, and most likeable and attractive in what are essentially ingénue roles.

Director Evan Bergman has injected a comedic physicality into the performances which maximizes the laughter quotient of Marisa Smith's script. Scenic Designer Jessica Parks has again miraculously designed a deep, expansive set which overcomes the constraints of New Jersey Rep's narrow stage. Its light, muted colors bespeak the quiet luxury of the Fifth Avenue Huntleys.

While Saving Kitty succeeds extremely well as an entertainment (it generates a great deal of laughter from a clearly well satisfied audience, and extra performances have been added to meet the demand for tickets), Marisa Smith cavalierly disregards its potential for sharp and overdue political satire by not allowing Kate to embody progressive positions on crucial issues. This makes Kate more nutty than liberal and Saving Kitty more ephemeral and less relevant than it could be.

Consider both the hilarious scene in which Kate dons a burka and finds it intolerable to wear and Kate's verbalized bigotry against various national and ethnic groups which would cause her to be banished from all polite society, let alone upper crust liberal circles. The knock on progressives (whether or not you or I believe it to be true) is the political correctness which allegedly foreclose substantive discussion and debate on issues such as Islamic terrorism, abuse of women and Shariah, and demonizes those who raise such issues as hateful bigots. Therefore, for Saving Kitty to be truly satiric, Kate would not brook any criticism of radical Islamists ("it's America's fault, yada yada yada") and Kitty would then trick her into wearing that burka, exposing Kate's hypocrisy. Saving Kitty is a tantalizing entertainment which could be even better if it could override its schizophrenia.

(Saving Kitty won Best Play at Portland Stages' Clauder Competition in 2010 and premiered at the Wellfleet Actors Harbor Theater in July 2012.)

Saving Kitty continues performances (Evenings: Thursday-Saturday 8 PM/ Sunday (8/18, 8/25) 7 PM/ Matinees: Thursday (8/22) & Sunday 2 PM/ Saturday 3 PM) through August 25, 2013, at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org .

Saving Kitty by Marisa Smith; directed by Evan Bergman

Cast
Huntley……….....John FitzGibbon
Kate……………….Judith Hawking
Kitty…………………..Sarah Nealis
Paul…………..Christian Pedersen


Photo: SuzAnne Barabas


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- Bob Rendell



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