10:45 am Mar. 23, 2011
Traditional notions of the nuclear family are fading in American culture, but plenty of examples have emerged that show people finding the love, support, and security associated with family in less traditional places. In fact, it's practically the dominant theme of contemporary television and movies.
In Kin, a new play by Bathsheba Doran, nuclear families have been torn apart—not obliterated completely, but damaged by death, divorce, and distance. Filling those gaps are friends, lovers and ex-lovers, even animals. But they're not always enough, and people too often find themselves completely alone.
Adjunct English professor Anna (Kirsten Bush) is being dumped by a member of the senior faculty as the play opens: “Maybe I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know it’s not you,” he tells her.
Anna’s family isn’t doing a great job of helping her through it: Her widowed father (played by Cotter Smith) lives far away, but there's another emotional distance layered on top of that. And her best friend Helena (Laura Heisler) is “a person of extremes”—a neurotic, self-pitying aspiring actor—who can barely hold herself together, much less help someone else. She meets Sean (Patch Darragh), a sweet and lonely personal trainer who has family troubles of his own: His emotionally stunted mother rattles around her house across the ocean in the Irish countryside, drinking her problems away, unable to get past a harrowing incident two decades before. Anna and Sean fall in love, and begin a very slow walk toward the altar that serves Doran's play as an examination of where kinship comes from.
Kinship is what links these disparate characters, through a series of short, episodic scenes played out on Paul Steinberg’s marvelously versatile modular set, wheeled into place by the actors. Doran has crafted a large group of compelling and believable characters (although Anna and Sean, sadly, are the least of them). And the cast adds depth to the sometimes skeletal script. In particular, Suzanne Bertish brings an understated vulnerability to Sean’s mother Linda, and Smith is so charismatic as Anna’s “cold” and two-timing father that it’s easy to take his side in their disagreements.
But the relationships between Doran’s characters are both less compelling and less believable. Sean moved across the ocean to get away from his mother, but you never get to the bottom of his character, whether he feels resentful or sad, relieved or bittersweet about this separation; does he pity his mother, or feel responsible for her emotional problems? Anna maintains her long friendship with Helena, but it’s never apparent why, considering how difficult the self-centered Helena can be. Anna’s relationship with her well-meaning if imperfect father is similarly unclear—she’s angry at him for being distant, we are told but not shown: we see little of either her anger or his distance in the action of the play.
Most importantly, the relationship at the core of the play, between Anna and Sean, is too vaguely drawn to serve as the dramatic center holding all the characters together. They are meant to be a shockingly inappropriate couple—an academic and a personal trainer! The pairing isn't shocking at all: Sean isn’t an intellectual, but he’s not anti-intellectual, and while Anna doesn’t appear to be a fitness nut, she looks like she’s done some exercise in her time. With all the other possible differences that might make couples chafe—race, religion, politics, age—this seems so minor as to be unremarkable, a narcissism of minor differences. Are their different jobs really a source of tension? We never find out, because, until the final minutes of the play, Anna and Sean rarely appear on stage as a couple, so the audience has little notion of their relationship. We know Sean still thinks of an old girlfriend sometimes, although nothing much comes of that, and we know that Anna wants to leave him at some point, but we never know why and never find out why she changes her mind.
Without any real sense of the central relationship, it’s hard to care much about the secondary (or tertiary) relationships that take up so much of the play. There’s a lovely scene where Sean’s mother and her brother get drunk together, a moving section where Anna’s father comes to the bedside of his dying mistress, and a quirky but revealing bit where Helena flirts with a hunter in the woods. But the success of these scenes only highlights how thinly drawn the main emotional connections are.
By the end, Doran has fleshed out the individuals in Kin, and explained how each one is related to the others. But once she’s connected the dots, there’s little more than a sketch of a new family, still waiting to be filled in.
Kin is showing at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd St. Tickets are $75. Call 212-279-4200.
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- Carol Kane's talents are trapped in a play about Bette Davis that's like 'Dolores Claiborne' on barbiturates
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