Small Mercies

Adam's Rapp new play, Kindness, currently running in a limited engagement at Playwrights Horizons, is suspenseful, funny and tightly written. Under the author's own discreet direction, the members of the small ensemble cast take their time on stage and seem to revel in the quality material. The result is an act of kindness in itself for weary theatergoers. The play centers on Dennis (Christopher Denham), a small-town high school student who has come to New York with his terminally ill mother, Maryanne (Annette O'Toole), ostensibly to have a close-to-the-end bonding weekend attending an uplifting Broadway musical.

The potent opening scene touches on the uneasy sexual tension between mother and teenaged son. In this bland midtown hotel room, impeccably designed by Laurie Helpern, the minutes pass painfully in a chasm of enforced gaiety and impending loss, and in the absence of a father saddled with a chronic gambling problem.

After several rounds with her surly non-Broadway-musical-loving son, Maryanne invites Herman (Ray Anthony Thomas), an attentive cab driver, to attend the show in his place. Left in the hotel to face a lonely evening, Dennis encounters a striking and quite elusive woman named Frances (Katherine Waterston).

While it’s difficult to discuss more of this play without divulging its plot, it’s easy to talk about the elements that make this production so good. Need drives this play, in the best possible sense. There is a palpable chemistry among its characters, as they bang against each other in a desperate push-and-pull attempt to survive. Rapp’s direction is subtle, and his use of the stage (including periodic disappearances into the bathroom) is excellent. There is also an underlying element of suspense that keeps the play constantly in-the-moment.

Denham, who also appeared in Rapp’s Red Light Winter, is a wonderful blend of bravado and longing. There is great humor in his scenes with his mother, which he handles with verbal skill and timing. Quirky and beautiful, Waterston’s performance is also acutely intelligent. While she may have been given one too many Mae West style lines (some are terrific), she executes an offbeat impromptu dance with pluck and vulnerability. Thomas is a completely believable and likeable cab driver, a sort of moral beacon to whom kindness is a way of life, and the focus of much of O’Toole’s rabid second act hunger.

Kindness is a stone-thrown-into-the-pond kind of play, the ripple effects of which expand outwards from the action itself. Equally the play leaves a growing impression on the viewer much after its ending. I strongly recommend that you catch this gem of a play before its limited run is over.

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