Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
David Lindsay Abaire is a very clever playwright, bright and imaginative, and he writes theatre that is inventive, sometimes a bit disorienting, funny, and usually intriguing. Because he often has a distressingly negative view of family life in general and familial relationships in particular, his humor tends to be abusive and darkly hilarious. As with the families themselves, his characters seem inclined to peculiar pathologies that prevent them from leading "normal" lives. They lead their lives disabled by maladies both exotic and mundane. Each seems to find some way to make the lives of the others more difficult, and in the process to further disappoint themselves.
In "Kimberly Akimbo" a 16 year old girl is aging at four times the usual rate, so she appears to us as a 60 plus year old woman. Both Kimberly's father and mother are (at least in appearance) much younger than their child. Buddy, her father, drinks and is entombed in his domestic life. Her mother, Pattie, is a pregnant hypochondriac. They are visited by her aunt Debra, who is a homeless petty criminal. Kimberly has a potential boyfriend, Jeff, who is a hopeless nerd with ADHD and a passion for "Dungeons and Dragons". Debra launches a criminal plan with the collusion of Kimberly and Jeff, which will entangle everyone in the family and, of course, end badly.
Mr. Abaire rose to national attention with his widely-produced play "Fuddy Meers", about an amnesiac woman and the people who may or may not be her family. He has since gone on to write for movies and television. Given that range of media, it's apparent that he fully understands what is unique and uniquely effective on stage. But equally apparent is that he can be self-consciously clever, at times gimmicky, and inclined to the sort of sit-com types that are all too familiar from television. In this play, the purely theatrical device of an older woman playing a young girl who appears to be an older woman is only possible with the imaginary puissance of the stage. It also provides a very interesting technical challenge for an actress; to give us a recognizably youthful perspective on her unique experience of adulthood as appearance, as artifice.
Abaire's blend of ironic absurdity and interpersonal dysfunction requires carefully balanced direction, and David Hsieh doesn't quite pull it off. The comedy never quite goes out on the edge far enough, and the drama is inconsistent. More critically, this play really lives or dies on the depth, variety and authenticity of the actress playing Kimberly, and Diane Felty simply doesn't have the range to make it work. Where the play demands that we see the literal inner-child generating a persona in conflict with the woman who appears before us, this performance embodies a child only because the script says it does. Ms. Felty never fully becomes a young woman trapped in an old woman's body, nor an old woman who knows the world through the eyes of youth. That is a shortcoming from which the production simply cannot recover.
Much more successful were the other members of Kimberly's family. Roberta Pionski played the mother with a fine mix of anger, cynicism, self-pity and wounded maternal desperation. With both hands swathed in bandages for her carpel-tunnel, a cast on one leg, and her bulging, pregnant belly, she literally carried the miseries of her life wrapped around her. For all that, she was the one who had at least some fantasy of what domestic life should be like, however removed from the reality around her. Adam Sewall is also quite good as Buddy, a husband and father with no solid concept of either role. Again, he might like to do the right thing, as in giving up drinking, but it won't last two weeks. And the relationship between the husband and wife explains everything about this family. He is condemned to life with her, and she is resigned to a life without him in any emotional sense. When the aggressively bad influence of Aunt Debra arrives we know immediately that she will be the spark that ignites this domestic tinderbox of malignant neglect. Ellen Dessler is very effective in creating an uncompromising, amoral and catalytic character.
The boyfriend, Jeff, is a different and distinct performance problem. Michael Scott is very skillful in creating a bumbling, four-eyed, stereotypical nerd, and is often very, very funny. The problem is that his performance is, first of all, a pure stereotype, and secondly, too broad for the style of this production. "Kimberly Akimbo" calls for the creation of a world in which the bizarre is achieved by small exaggerations, not by cartooning. Mr. Scott would have been fine for Seymore in "Little Shop of Horrors", but given the unfortunate limitations of the lead role, and this outsized caricature at the other end of the spectrum, the play as a whole flies into pieces.
"Kimberly Akimbo" is an amusing, sometimes overly hard-working play with some uncommon perspectives on family relationships and aging and what it means to live maturely. But it is also a surprisingly delicate piece of comic theatre, and director David Hsieh didn't quite have the finesse to mold all of his players into a single performance style, to unify the manner of the comedy, or to earn the moments of genuine compassion. There is good work on display here, but in the end this production suffers from the same malady as Kimberly herself, never quite able to understand what it means to be what she is, or what to do about it.