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A CurtainUp Review
Kimberly Akimbo

In the following exchange, Kimberly's classmate and new friend Jeff demonstrates his talent for anagrams -- and, at the same time, the play's title:

Kimberly Levaco turns into. . .Cleverly Akimbo ---Jeff
What's Akimbo? ---Kimberly
It's. . .bent. You know, when your hands are on your hips, then your arms are akimbo ---Jeff

Can a sixty-two year-old actress convincingly play a sixteen-year old girl? The answer is yes -- if she happens to be Mary Louise Burke, a seasoned interpreter of the zany misfits who populate David Lindsay-Abaire's landscape of dysfunctional lower middle class America.

Actually, given the four times faster than normal aging process of kids born with a disease called Progeria, Ms. Burke's sexagenarian appearance is just about right for sixteen-year-old Kimberly Levaco who is a Progeria victim. Having played key supporting roles in Fuddy Meers and Wonder of the World, also produced in New York at Manhattan Theatre Club, Burke is now Mr. Lindsay-Abaire's delightfully funny and heartwrenchingly tragic sweet sixteen heroine.

The fourth scene in in Kimberly Adkimbo's emotionally and generally superior second act, has a gasp inducing entrance by Miss Burke. In it Kimberly is transformed from her previous teen-aged persona into a genuine old lady in print dress and turban, a petit point bag in one hand and a cane in the other. This at once devastatingly funny and heartbreaking moment is indeed a coup de theatre. The getup is part of a madcap robbery scheme cooked up by Aunt Debra whose "You look like Rose Kennedy" evokes peals of laughter. That laughter dies in midair as this new image of Kimberly shocks us into understanding of her inevitable future -- and the inevitability of our own aging.

I agree with David Lohrey's assessment of Kimberly Akimbo as the strongest of the trio of plays in which Lindsay-Abaire uses his loopy humor to steer a group of eccentrics drowning in the sea of confusion known as modern life find their way to safer, happier harbors. This young playwright has a firm grasp on family relationships hanging together by a thread in working class communities like Secaucus -- which Kimberly's family fled for mysterious reasons -- and their new home, Bogota (a switch from the play's original and somewhat more upscale Teaneck). His mind is marvelously original. We've all heard remarks about precociously adorable babes being eight (months or years) going on eighty, but only this witty young playwright could run with such a remark and find a real disease to fit it and then turn it into a tragi-comedy.

Though Kimberly, unlike its predecessors, makes do with a cast of five instead of seven, there are plenty of quirks to go around and the dialogue bubbles with many memorably funny lines. The reliance on those quirks (mom's karpel tunnel, Aunt Debra's weird and often criminal behavior which includes dragging a U.S. mailbox across the stage, Kimberly's nerdy young friend's way with anagrams, dad's penchant for alcohol) tend to swamp the tragedy of the most tragic and more common ills afflicting family relationships: neglect and the inability to accept and value the less-than-perfect; to write off the ill or aged as dead while they're still desperate to be recognized and loved.

No doubt there are other actresses who could do Kimberly, but Mary Louise Burke would indeed be a hard act to follow and audiences are fortunate to see her reprising the part she created at the South Coast Rep premiere. Also, on board from that production, is the excellent John Gallagher as Jeff, the member of the "Junior Wordsmiths of America." whose final scene with Kimberly makes for one of the more tender first kisses exchanged on stage or screen.

The off the wall parents and aunt who make up Kimberly's emotionally shipwrecked family are somewhat easier to replace. At a reading of the play in connection with the 2001 Kesselring Award ceremonies, Edie Falco, John Bedford Loyd and Jan Leslie Harding proved excellent collaborators for Burke and Gallagher. This time around, good work is done by Jodie Markell and Jake Weber as mom and dad and Ana Gasteyer as the awful auntie.

Markell's Pattie conveys a nice blend of yearning for a child she can love as she cannot love Kimberly with tough driver toughness. As her spineless husband and Kimberly's well-intentioned but neglectful father Weber allows himself to be a foil for Kimberly's wry humor; for example, his inept attempts to be a good dad include belligerently guarding his overweight, aged daughter against nerdy Jeff's potential sexual advances prompts his more sensible daughter to declare "What are you worried about? I went through Menopause four years ago." Ana Gasteyer translates her experience as one of the funny folks on Saturday Night Live into an amusing portrayal of the morality challenged Debra.

As he did in Fuddy Meers, David Petrarca directs with aptly stylized fluidity. Rober Brill's set design is true to the script's concise instructions for "a set with multiple locations" that should be "simple but somewhat representational. Nothing to stop the flow of the play." The floor to ceiling "thermos bottle " plaid motif is as common and orderly as the people in the play are not. The one dominating set piece, a clock that fast forwards wildly, reflects the characters' unexpressed concerns with life racing by unfulfilled. (A recent viewing of an adaptation of Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, prompted me to read this series parables about time inspired by Einstein's development of his famous theory. Kimberly Akimbo could easily seed several such parables). The rest of the crafts team has contributed equally impressive work -- and that includes Jason Robert Brown's catchy incidental music.

Some theater goers may find Kimberly Akimbo either too confusing or too pre-occupied with finding humor in various physical diseases. But behind the auteur-farceur is a serious diagnostician of the human condition. I, for one, can't wait to see where his unique theatrical sensibility will take him next.

Dave Lohrey's review of the premiere of Kimberly Akimbo
Other Plays Mentioned:
Fuddy Meers
Wonder of the World
Street Scene

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by David Petrarca
Cast: Marylouise Burke (Kimberly), John Gallagher, Jr. (Jeff), Ana Gasteyer (Debra), Jodie Markell (Pattie), and Jake Weber(Buddy).
Set Design: Robert Brill
Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Design Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Bruce Ellman
Original Music: Jason Robert Brown
Running time: 2 hours, includes one intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St, 212/ 581-1212.
1/14/03-4/06/03; opening 2/04/03.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 PM.
Sunday eveningperformances are at 7 PM.
Tickets are $60 --$20 student tickets are on sale for all performances based on availability on the day of theperformance, up to one hour before showtime (limit 4 per student with valid identification).
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January 30th press preview
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