I don't know the name of David Lindsay-Abaire's literary agent, but I'm guessing he sports twin horns and a pointy tail and carries around a pitchfork. How else can we explain why the playwright's quirky, funny but regrettably slight play Kimberly Akimbo is receiving such a stunningly first-rate production in its world premiere?
How stunningly first-rate? The director is David Petrarca, resident director at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, one of the most respected regional theaters in the country. The scenic designer is Robert Brill, one of the most respected names in his profession (he supplied the visuals for the latest revival of Cabaretalong with a bunch of other awesome stuff). Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz won a Tony Award last year for Kiss Me Kate. Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and sound designer Bruce Ellman have glittering New York credentials. Couple that with a cast that has apparently worked everywhere, along with the fact that South Coast Repertory—which ranks second to none in terms of working with emerging playwrights—commissioned and developed the piece, and you get the sense that a lot of people think this 31-year-old New York-based playwright is going places.
And I'm sure he is. But even with all the top-shelf talent (or maybe because of that talent), Kimberly Akimboseems undercooked and irrelevant. It looks and flows wonderfully, but scriptwise, this play is hard to care about. Which is very odd and more than slightly disappointing because Kim, the play's central character, is the type of person even someone with a heart the size of a pebble should care about: she's a 16-year-old girl trapped in the body of a 70-year-old woman. And she's getting exponentially older by the second. She suffers from progeria, a rare disease that causes people to age up to seven times the normal rate.
While amusing at times, delightfully vulgar at others and poignant on occasion, Kimberly Akimbonever adds up to much. It can't seem to make up its mind: Does it want to be the latest in a long line of caustic, foul-mouthed, faux-surreal looks at a screwed-up American family la Nicky Silver, or a bizarre After School Special meets Harold and Maudethat postulates even a 16-year-old with the body of a 70-year-old can find love in high school? Lindsay-Abaire opts for both, and the net result feels as uneasy as one would expect.
Basically, Kimberly Akimbois a coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl named Kimberly (a finely drawn Marylouise Burke) who bears one of the most brutal crosses imaginable. But, this being the early 21st century and this being a play, it's only natural that Kimberly is the most normal member of her family. Her mother, Pattie (a very strong and nastily comic Ann Dowd), is a bitter, vulgar woman expecting her second child. Unable to wipe her own ass because of carpal tunnel syndrome and convinced she is dying of cancer, Pattie spends her restless nights talking into a tape recorder in order to give her unborn child the real scoop on the family it will soon join. Kim's father, Buddy (Steven Flynn), works as the guy inside the booth at the local Chevron; he's also a drunk who lacks a backbone. Her aunt, Debra (a far too youthful-looking Joanna P. Adler), is some sort of subversive misfit who lives in the woods and steals mailboxes.
While her family isn't shy about talking about its disappointments and regrets, the one thing Kim's family never seems to talk about is its biggest disappointment: her. While everyone is making plans for the future—Mom and Dad are expecting a beautiful new baby, Aunt Debra has a harebrained scheme to get to Miami—the only one not talking about it is Kim because her body comes closer and closer to falling apart every day. By structuring the family dynamic this way, Lindsay-Abaire comes close to making a rather profound point about how easily we relegate the old and the frail to second-class citizenry and consider them dead long before they're actually gone. Some would claim this is nothing short of a sin against life. But they're probably old anyway, so who cares?
The introduction of Jeff (John Gallagher Jr.), a fellow high school student with a severe nerd streak, changes those stakes irrevocably. Kimberly is an outcast because of her disease; Jeff is an outcast because he is a geek. Will love flourish between these two lonely souls? Will Pattie and Buddy give birth to a normal child? Will Debra ruin everything with her wayward ways? And what dark secrets are truly lurking in these closets? Stay tuned.
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Lindsay-Abaire certainly has the talent to craft some brutally funny one-liners and has a certain facility with dialogue, but he fritters away too much time on insipid tangents. From the intricacies of hobgoblin hit points, Jeff's penchant for on-the-spot anagrams and Debra's scheme to forge a bunch of stolen checks, the play often feels unnecessarily convoluted by details or personality quirks that only the playwright seems to think are important.
The most frustrating aspect of Kimberly Akimbois its lack of substance, particularly in its rambling first act. While Petrarca delivers a uniquely stylized and fluid sense of direction, what's happening onstage is far less interesting than how it's happening. The ideas are certainly all valid—live life to its fullest, those closest to death are the ones who most realize how precious every moment is—but they're too often delivered in a too pedestrian or too bizarre fashion to carry much impact.
The play does take a turn for the better in the second act, particularly the last few scenes. Here is where we finally learn the source of the shame that colors this bitter family. It has less to do with Kim's ailment than with her family's inability to rise above the denial it finds itself mired in. And the play's end, in which resolutions are not given and easy answers not supplied, is a welcome treat. It's nice to see that after so much nastiness and bitterness, the playwright doesn't feel the need to sugarcoat his ending. It's one of the few times in the course of this play that the story's substance matches its style. Perhaps not so coincidentally, it's also one of the few times I actually cared about what was happening.
Kimberly Akimbo on South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through May 13. $28-$49.