Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Under the Skin and
Nora

Also see Kelly's review of Frost/Nixon


Julianna Zinkel and Douglas Rees
Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce
Playwright Michael Hollinger has premiered seven of his plays at the Arden Theatre over the past few decades, and his latest, Under the Skin, is full of the clever, concise dialogue that has made his work so remarkable and popular. Unfortunately, it's also got a tired, hoary premise, sour characters, and plot twists that you'll see coming a mile away. You may laugh a lot at Under the Skin—I sure did—but you may also have the nagging suspicion that you've seen it all before.

In the opening scene, stressed-out single mom Raina is surprised late one night at her Ohio home when her cold and distant father Lou shows up. Lou says he's there to give a present to the four-year-old granddaughter he's never met (and whose name he can never recall), but Raina is suspicious: did he really drive all the way from Philadelphia just for that? Pretty soon Lou reveals the real purpose of his visit: he's suffering from renal failure and wants Raina to donate a kidney.

Raina is still angry at Lou for all the slights of her childhood—especially the affair that broke up his marriage to Raina's mom. She even blames him, logic be damned, for the lung cancer that killed her mother—but that's no surprise, since she seems to blame him for every bad thing in her life. Nevertheless, she shows up at his Philadelphia hospital room to explore the possibility of being a kidney donor; she's not certain she wants to make a donation, but "I want to be the kind of person who would." While in the waiting room filling out paperwork, she meets Jarrell, a sweet, understanding guy who's also there to be an organ donor. Raina and Jarrell end up having a fling—but there's a plot twist at the end of act one that casts a new light on that fling.

I'm not going to reveal what that plot twist is. I will say, though, that a few months ago, on an email list I subscribe to, there was a discussion about how many TV shows have had the exact same plot twist. That should give you an idea how familiar Under the Skin feels. All the developments seems obvious, even though Hollinger's jokes make them go down easy. The plot seems not a way for the characters to grow but an excuse to have Lou and Raina snipe at each other. Each resentment seems carefully calculated, and Raina's indecisiveness means we hear the same arguments over and over again. Lou can be a pretty callous person at times, but he's not as bad as the volatile Raina, who rants at a complete stranger when her Starbucks pastry isn't heated the way she wants. Hollinger clearly demonstrates that it's her mistreatment by Lou that has made her so angry, but while that makes her sympathetic, it doesn't make her any easier to be around. And Julianna Zinkel's hyper, relentless performance doesn't help. "You must think I'm a hot mess," Raina tells Jarrell at one point; well, she's got that right.

Douglas Rees fares better as Lou; his more relaxed tone suits Hollinger's style of comedy better. (Rees was a last-minute replacement for Craig Spidle, who had to leave the production after opening night due to illness. Rees does have to consult his script a bit during act two, but it doesn't detract from his performance much.) Biko Eisen-Martin, as Jarrell, is too laid back to be fully effective for much of the show, though he does get to break out with a forceful scene in act two. The show's best performance comes from Alice M. Gatling, who plays three roles with a dry, understated delivery that earns her the biggest laughs. Terrence J. Nolen directs the show efficiently in a small space, setting up scene changes with a minimum of movement and fuss.

Under the Skin has a lot of cute moments, but with its bitter characters and rote storyline, it wears out its welcome.

Under the Skin runs through March 15, 2015, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $36-$50 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.


Kim Carson
Photo by Matt Urban

Nora is filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's 1981 adaptation of one of the classic works of 19th century drama, Fredrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Bergman's rewrite cuts the play down from three hours to about 90 minutes, and eliminates some minor characters. Yet, while Delaware Theatre Company's production might be lacking in length, it isn't lacking in drama. It's accessible without being dumbed down. It's a fine, satisfying take on a play whose feminist viewpoint was revolutionary in 1879 and is still compelling today.

In A Doll's House, housewife Nora Helmer had three children and three servants. In this version of the story, however, those characters are mentioned but are not seen. As a result, when things go awry for Nora—when her long-ago forging of bank documents threatens to be exposed, bringing possible ruination for both Nora and her banker husband—it seems there's nothing to shield her from the world. Director Michael Mastro's production emphasizes her solitude by setting the action against a stark black backdrop, an eerie abyss of guilt that seems as if it's out to envelop her. The remaining characters appear in the background from time to time, standing in silent judgment of Nora and all she has done wrong. And her vain, clueless husband Thorvald is no comfort at all.

Kim Carson displays a great range in the title role; she's flighty and superficial at first, then anxious and desperate, and finally brave and defiant—and she does it all convincingly. Chris Thorn matches her intensity as Krogstad, the man who is seemingly out to destroy her, and David Arrow makes Thorvald pompous without making him cartoonish. Kevin Bergen is sweet and reassuring as a doctor who advises both Nora and her husband, and Susan Riley Stevens is excellent as Mrs. Linde, the embittered old friend who helps set the story in motion. (One disadvantage of Bergman's editing is that the relationship between Mrs. Linde and Krogstad seems underdeveloped, but this is a minor failing.)

Alexis Distler's sparse set design and Christopher J. Bailey's low-level lighting set the mood perfectly. It's not until the powerful final scene that the lights become bright and the full extent of the stage becomes visible. Nora, repressed for so long, can see everything about her life clearly.

Nora runs through February 22, 2015, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, Delaware. Tickets are $30-$45 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 302-594-1100, or online at www.DelawareTheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy


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