Written and Directed by Adam Rapp
Featuring Annette O'Toole
Playwrights Horizons / 416 West 42nd Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

I read only part of an interview with playwright Adam Rapp about his new play, Kindness, at Playwrights Horizons, but accompanying his admission that he wrote it, in part, to come to grips with his relationship with his mother, there is also a good deal of background information particularizing what the relationship entailed—and it seems to be a far different story than the one Mr. Rapp has served up.

                  On the one hand, there’s no reason why it should be biographical; I can tell you first hand that I’ve examined many personal things in works that were even adaptations, even in an Alien Nation novel, of all things; you tap into a character’s deeper symbolic meaning, and if the outward particulars are different enough, you can do the equivalent of dancing naked in Times Square without anyone noticing. On the other hand, I wonder if Mr. Rapp—like most of us—lacks the perspective (or the courage?) that would let him tell even a disguised version of his own story that might reveal Glass Menagerie type universalities.

                  There’s a different kind of courage inherent in Kindness, the (false?) bravado of the dystopian dramatist, who refuses to let hope exist without its potential to be horribly dashed. While this has worked to his advantage in some plays (and not at all in others), here dystopia seems to be force-fed. The story’s about two Midwesterners, a divorced, middle aged mom dying of cancer (Annette O’Toole) and the 17-year old son (Christopher Denham) burdened with the responsibility of looking out for her on a trip to NYC she’s taken against doctor’s orders—but she’s insisting on what will certainly be her last hurrah. The setting is their generic hotel room in midtown. The contrivances begin right away in that the inchoate surliness that colors the sons dutifulness is dramatically unearned, making it seem as if he’s possessed by an only vaguely interested demon. But it gives him the “motivation” to refuse to see a musical with her (Survivin’ a gleeful jibe at Rent, in whose original cast the playwright’s brother Anthony created a lead role), and her the permission to invite a friendly cab driver (we’ll meet him later in the person of Ray Anthony Thomas) who has apparently befriended her this day and admitted he’s never seen a Broadway musical before. And this lets mom take off, so that when sonny goes off for ice, a young, enigmatic and potential femme fatale (Katherine Waterston) can enter the room and have sonny all to himself upon his return. But the wiles she works on him are not sexual (save in the way of a slightly older woman teasing a younger man with a tacit promise she never means to fulfill) but rather psychological, as for reasons that pass rationality, she draws out of him his bleakest fantasy about freedom from his burden, and offers the possibility of making them manifest.

                  Because Kindness is well acted, by the women especially (under the playwright’s able direction), and does, however implausibly, offer us the suspense of wondering whether this eccentric little comedy-drama will fall off its tightrope into a miasma of misanthropy and despair—and, not meaning to spoil anything,  leaves us with that question, pulling a Roald Dahl/John Collier-type twist at the end—it’s never dull or uninteresting. But nor does it ever seem a believable or illuminating story of mother-son issues.

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