Kindness @ Playwrights Horizons & Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, New York

cast list
Christopher Denham
Annette O’Toole
Ray Anthony Thomas
Katherine Waterston

directed by
Adam Rapp
Playwright Adam Rapp, known for his harsh, unsparing characters, has chosen an appropriately ironic title for his latest play.

Kindness, which I saw during its preview period, features a cast of four, but the characters splayed out here for examination rarely live up to the title of the play in which they’re contained. And despite his attempts at writing a play about redemption, Rapp is nevertheless up to his usual pranks, as misguided as usual in terms of his sense of dramatic language.

Rapp’s slangy, quirky dialogue and hip characters are his signature. The bottom-dwellers in his most noted work thus far, Red Light Winter, were cruel and cutting, their profane, stilted speech perfectly matched to their morally wounded natures. Here, however, where the characters are either suburbanites and regular people, Rapp’s typical shtick produces far less cohesive results.

The play takes place in a Manhattan hotel room (appropriately dismal as designed by Lauren Helpern). Terminally ill mom Maryanne has taken her son Dennis to New York for a last mother-son bonding ritual. She wants to take him to see a Broadway musical called Survivin’, a fictional Rent ripoff about bohemians struggling to keep living despite poverty and disease (amusing at first, this joke wears thin). When he backs out, she decides instead to go instead with a kindly cab driver named Herman. But while his mom is out of the picture, Dennis gets mixed up with the mysterious ne’er-do-well Frances, whose connivances complicate present unique complications to the plot.

The cast is mostly fine. Christopher Denham is too old for the role of Dennis, but he plays the character with dignity rather than lapsing into stereotypically teenage mannerisms. Annette O’Toole is appropriately fidgety and, especially in the play’s climactic moments, quite affecting. And Katherine Waterston is flighty as Frances, a sort of modern Holly Golightly who provides a counter to the calm demeanor of Dennis’s character.

Still, despite a tight ensemble, there are gaps in Rapp’s rationale here. First and foremost, why would cab driver Herman spontaneously take a night off to attend a Broadway musical? Frances’s storyline, too, is fraught with complicated irregularities that mount and mount until they seem unbearably contrived. One could excuse these elaborately idiosyncratic plot points as presences of the playwright’s heightened hand on the work, but the themes presented here amount to little more than hollow searching.

By the play’s end, we’re meant to question our assumptions about kindness. But the character’s voices ring false and leave an audience grasping at straws as to what to take away from the production. There are touching moments centered around the mother-son relationship, and several other winning scenes, but mostly one wishes Rapp had been more truthful and less manipulative in his depiction of these intersecting lost souls.

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