Monday, October 13, 2008

The Rap on Rapp

Written and directed by Adam Rapp
Starring Christopher Denham, Annette O'Toole, Ray Anthony Thomas, Katherine Waterston

Performances from September 25 to November 2, 2008
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Denham and O' Toole
in Kindness
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Adam Rapp’s Kindness begins with its 17-year-old protagonist, Dennis, masturbating to the porn channel in the midtown Manhattan hotel room he shares with his mother, Maryanne, who’s sick from cancer. Returning to their room unexpectedly just as he is climaxing, she needs a jacket–the one that he just used to catch his mess.

After Mom leaves again–she and Herman, the sweet, divorced black cabbie who drove her back to the hotel, are seeing the smash musical Survivin’!–Dennis finds himself alone with Frances, a talkative, odd young woman who acts out Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic classic “White Rabbit” for him before taking a nap in his bed. In short order, Frances’ secret life comes to haunt Dennis, while Maryanne’s wonderful night out with Herman is cut short by another relapse.

Rapp has titled his play Kindness in an attempt to have it both ways. He’s written both a dark comedy about a disaffected young man whose fantasies about putting his mother out of her misery with a hammer to her head are prodded by a kooky 28-year-old woman, and a tragic melodrama about a sick middle-aged mother and the son who loves her in spite of his protestations to the contrary: his weary cynicism merely hides his real feelings.

On both counts does Kindness fall flat: juggling such drastic shifts in tone is jarring because they do not occur unexpectedly, as they would in real life, instead popping up with unstinting regularity–and the continuous rug-pulling becomes tiresome by arriving on schedule again and again. The play also fails in its blandly satirical take on the various people who meet in Manhattan–wide-eyed Midwestern tourists Dennis and Maryanne, bad-girl Frances, 20-year cab driver Herman–as Rapp wallows in trite observations about the city’s commercialized theater scene. A lengthy digression about audiences who genuflect before every piece of tripe that makes it to Broadway seems dragged in from another play.

In the end, Rapp throws up his hands, making a final bid for weighty tragedy by having Dennis seem about to kill his mother, a cop-out ending that comes after yet another overlong sequence in which Kindness becomes a short documentary on how to care for a cancer-ridden parent. Rapp throws bunches of balls into the air, only to keep amateurishly dropping them.

It’s only appropriate that a hammer figures so prominently in Kindness, for that’s what Rapp uses as writer-director. A capable quartet of actors–Annette O’Toole (Maryann), Christopher Denham (Dennis), Ray Anthony Thomas (Herman), and Katherine Waterston (Frances)–help Kindness pass by painlessly, which is the kindest compliment I can pay.

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