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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Christopher Denham and Annette O'Toole.
Photo by Joan Marcus

In relative terms, Kindness lives up to its title. The only burned-out wasteland serving as the setting for Adam Rapp's new play at Playwrights Horizons's Peter Jay Sharp Theater is New York's Theatre District. In terms of murders, there are only two: one actual (but offstage), and one contemplated. And the story really does involve four people doing good things - or reasonable facsimiles thereof - for each other. Does this mean that the famously fringe Rapp is finally losing his touch?

Not quite. Despite the outward sedateness of its locale, an inviting but sparse Midtown hotel room (the convincing work of set designer Lauren Helpern), Kindness still contains the same furious frenzy of emotional activity beneath the skin and jittery distrust of emotional connection above it that are Rapp's well-established trademarks. That makes this a "gateway" play, a more widely accessible work that will hopefully get you jazzed enough about Rapp to experiment with his more convention-crushing works, bearing titles like Finer Noble Gases, American Sligo, and Essential Self-Defense.

But unlike the best-known entry of this Rapp subgenre, Red Light Winter (about two young men and the needy prostitute they meet in Amsterdam), Kindness is almost ordinary and actionless to a fault. The sole moment of genuine onstage tension is literally its first: A young man named Dennis (Christopher Denham) is sitting, watching porn and masturbating, when his mother Maryanne (Annette O'Toole) comes in. Did he, ahem, finish in time? Did she see anything? And where's that pesky jacket of hers she's sure she left in that chair over by the window? (By the way, all you newcomers: This is also the play at its most overtly Rappian.)

From then on, everything is internalized. The metastasized cancer that's left Maryanne with a month, perhaps less, to live, inspiring her to take Dennis on their final vacation together. Dennis's conflicted feelings: part severe pity, part frustration at the burden his mother's condition is inflicting on him. After his mother leaves to attend a Rent-like Bohemian love-rock musical with the friendly taxi driver Herman (Ray Anthony Thomas) she just met, Dennis meets a beautiful young woman named Frances (Katherine Waterston) who steals into his hotel room and challenges his ideas of himself and of the acts of generosity on which all of human existence is generally based.

While Frances is adept at drawing dark truths out of Dennis (he admits to fantasizing about killing his mother, for example), she's equally talented at holding back a few of her own. These become the threads of what little plot the play reveals late in its first act and early on in its second, and they form the basis for the show's most inherently interesting scenes, the innocent and the violated colliding in neutral territory. Too much of the other dialogue, especially between Dennis and Maryanne, require absolutely naked honesty, hard admissions submerged in murky subtext; layering of feelings in that way is not Rapp's greatest strength.

Exploring and exploding external representations of private turmoil is more his style, but this scenario allows little elbow room for such pensively symbolic game-playing. When it occurs here, ostensibly defining Maryanne's heartlessly Heartland outlook (she and Dennis hail from a particularly Iowan part of Illinois), outlining Dennis and Frances's tiptoe-around-the-subject pre-pillow talk, or delimiting a discussion about ordering Chinese food, it stands out as an intrusion, a non-sequitur that most directors would minimize to keep an unstable evening on track.

Because Rapp himself is the director, this doesn't happen. He emphasizes these moments to invoke the quirky rhythms and halting vocal interplay he loves for showing his characters' bemusement at living unamusing lives. But this only adds to the flotsam and jetsam in which the characters, and some actors, are floating. Waterston is least adept in navigating these waters, punctuating many of her lines with a forced detachment too heavy for Frances's battle-scarred listlessness. Thomas has so few lines as the openly sympathetic Herman he barely needs to worry about it, but looks somewhat uncomfortable in his few minutes onstage.

Denham (who starred in Red Light Winter) and O'Toole, however, are spot-on, their scenes together painful but affecting depictions of the canyons that can form between parent and child over matters both miniscule (her buying him a sweatsuit) and vast (her reaching the end of her days as he's coming to the beginning of his). Denham's grouping Dennis's many contradictory thoughts into a sleepwalking inertia and O'Toole's relentless attempts to pierce it with her limited arsenal of maternal goodwill give their central pairing a grounding in humanity it doesn't get from Rapp.

What their roles need is what the play needs: the vivid individuality of Rapp's underworld-scraping works translated into real-world terms. Rapp spends so much time documenting eccentrics struggling with each other for the title of Most Unusual that his flesh-and-blood creations must become the walking dead to compensate. When Dennis says to his mother before her night out, "You look like a corpse," he's not joking. But so does he, and so do Frances and Herman, however hard they try to hide it. All four characters learn that kindness is a part of life, but Rapp hasn't yet learned that life is the most important element missing from Kindness.

Through November 22
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Playwrights Horizons

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