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A CurtainUp LA Review
Kimberly Akimbo
David Lohrey

Fuddy Meers, which opened to positive reviews and ran Off-Broadway for much of the season two years ago, played like a pin-pricked balloon in the minds of those who saw it. The play zipped along riding on a wave of popular acclaim but, by the time it closed, many had reassessed its heft and had found it wanting. What was all the fuss about, one wondered, and what in the world was that play about? Many concluded that like all balloons it was just filled with air, while others, recognizing the play as top-flight farce, accepted it for what it was.

This time, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has written a play that buzzes along, only the balloon is not filled with air, but with laughing gas, and instead of being held by a string, it is tied to a firecracker. Kimberly Akimbo exposes all of the author's remarkable talents, plus one: dramatic depth. This play takes the audience on a ride, including a detour into the inner recesses of the American consciousness, a territory mapped out by our best playwrights.

Kimberly reminds us of plays by the great American playwrights: it is Long Day's Journey, only the boys have stolen their mother's morphine and are getting high with dad; it is Salesman, but now when Biff finds his dad cheating on his mom, instead of running away, he wants part of the action; here the No-Neck Monsters have inherited Big Daddy's plantation, and they're holding Maggie and Brick for ransom. In other words, David Lindsay-Abaire takes as his subject the greatest dramatic subject of all time, the family, and poses the following question: Why are we still together, now that it has been agreed we owe each other nothing?

As in Fuddy Meers, the play's milieu is semi-urban, on the fringe lumpen-proletariat whites struggling to stay alive in Teaneck, New Jersey. The family consists of pregnant Pattie (Ann Dowd), her husband Buddy (Steven Flynn), and daughter Kimberly (Marylouise Burke). Pattie is a marvelously foul-mouthed matriarch who, having lost the use of both hands, spends her days and nights preparing a taped confession for her new born. She uses her nose to press the controls of the tape recorder and needs her husband's assistance when she finishes in the bathroom. Ann Dowd is the Medea of K-Mart society, a wildly convincing shrew whose greatest talent lies in exposing her inability to love her 16-year-old daughter, who suffers from an aging condition that has saddled her with the body of a woman some 70 years of age. Husband Buddy and daughter Kimberly survive by keeping their distance.

All remains perversely normal until Kimberly's aunt Debra (Joanna P. Adler) shows up. She has the inside dope on why it is that the family fled Secaucus and what it was that happened there. It ain't pretty. Here the criminal mind meets the amoral, and we are off and running. Aunt Debra, who walks at all times as though she were staging a prison break, convinces Kimberly and her young high school friend Jeff (John Gallagher, Jr.) to enact a complex fraud using checks she has stolen from a US post box. Her elaborate scheme once set into motion places Kimberly and Jeff on a course that will lead eventually to Kimberly's final escape.

The bizarre doings of Aunt Debra (I can't say enough positive things about this wonderful actress) occasion two inspired coups de theatre that deserve mention. The first is when Debra enters the Pattie's kitchen, dragging an entire street-corner post office box behind. This leaves the audience slack-jawed and momentarily silent. The second is the appearance of niece Kimberly dressed as an old woman in preparation for the check cashing scheme which calls for her to appear at the local bank branch dressed as young Jeff's grandmother. She looks so convincing, one doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry. When Debra says, "You look just like Rose Kennedy," the audience blows a gasket, at first with pleasure and then in recognition of the awful truth of poor Kimberly's mortality.

The acting could not be better. And the star turns do not necessarily begin with the star. Indeed, Petrarca has put together a superb cast whose greatest triumph is their ensemble performance. It has to be said that Ms Adler and Mr. Gallagher are performers of considerable talent. Ms Adler is a ballerina in street clothes, a gifted physical actress who sustains comic outrage, as did Peter Sellers, with a mere flick of the finger. Young Mr. Gallagher is a natural performer, whose innocent charm is as disarming as it is convincing. The only question is whether such a handsome boy would ever be thought the geek Mr. Gallagher is asked to play.

Much will be said of this marvelous production . As a Los Angeles playgoer, it is worth asking again why it is that the best productions continue to consist of out-of-town talent. In this case, Mr. Petrarca comes to SCR on loan from the Goodman in Chicago. He directed the world premiere of Fuddy Meers at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. Clearly, he is a master of pacing and has a genius for casting. .

What makes this production is the consistency of vision. The play's physical landscape precisely maps the psychic turmoil of the characters. In this connection, the play is akin to the expressionistic play The Adding Machine, the 1920s classic by Elmer Rice. This is achieved by scenic designer Robert Brill's magnificent sets, which simultaneously represent realism and absurdity. The odd ticking clock and the ceiling lamp which spins like a top are but hints of the restlessness of the human heart as understood by Mr. Lindsay-Abaire, whose greatest comic insight is that because American life is so horrible, escape has become a national preoccupation, with the quest for fun replacing religion as an American past time and theme parks have taken up where churches left off. This connection between mass fanaticism, despair and fun has not escaped the design team. It is not for nothing that among Mr. Brill's numerous credits is the triumphant new Broadway production of Cabaret.

Contemporary audiences may find this play confusing. Certain themes carried over from Fuddy Meers may convince viewers that this play, too is but a farce. It will also be easy for people to believe that this is a dramatic study of the various ailments considered. Do not be deceived. The ills Mr. Lindsay-Abaire diagnoses cannot be so easily named, and none can be treated by modern medicine. They are ancient failings of the spirit, and few of us are immune. He uses amnesia, progeria, and carpal tunnel syndrome merely as devices, perhaps even as symbols of malaise, but he is much more interested here in that far more debilitating condition, the tyranny of neglect. And who among us has not suffered from that? Jason Robert Brown’s original music runs the gamut from whimsical to intensely dramatic, keeping a steady finger on the pulse of Lindsay-Abaire’s script. br>
Other plays by John Lindsay-Abaire
Fuddy Meers.
Wonder of the World

Author: David Lindsay-Abaire
Director: David Petrarca
Cast: Joanna P. Adler, Marylouise Burke,Ann Dowd, Steven Flynn, John Gallagher, Jr. Scenic Designer: Robert Brill
Sound Designer: Bruce Ellman
Costume Designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Designer: Brian MacDevitt
Original Music: Jason Robert Brown

Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Ca. (714) 708-5555. From 04/06/2001 to 05/13/01

Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 04/14/01.
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