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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Kith and Kin

By Ariana Mufson

In post-election Los Angeles, one can't help but be intrigued by a play that invites you to visit "Dysfunction Junction, Texas!" What is served up by Texas native Oliver Hailey's script and We Cast Ourselves Productions would hardly be tolerated in the state in which it takes place, but premiering at the Hudson Guild theater in Hollywood, it received a warm reception.

Country music welcomes us into the Hudson Guild's black box theater which cozily seats forty three people. We see a small living room, painted a goldenrod yellow and adorned with deer horns. The set, square and crowded with furniture, creates an intimate atmosphere that's reinforced by the theater itself. This reflects the playwright's aim to portray a tight family and how such families can in some ways be too tight. The layout of the stage forces the characters to remain close, even as they constantly try to escape.

Thus we are brought into the world of Kith and Kin. The title says it all. In east Texas, your relatives are your life 'til death do you part. Death indeed takes a leading role. When their father dies, three redneck brothers must decide who will take care of their mother and thus control the money from their father's will.

The oldest brother, Darryl (Jeff Kerr McGivney), and middle brother, Big Boots (Drake Simpson) are of the stereotypical Texas variety -- not too bright and not too concerned with others. It's the youngest brother, Tommy Joe (Nathan Brooks Burgess), of course, who wants better for both himself and for Big Boots' son, the piano prodigy Little Boots. When we learn that Big Boots has been in jail for strangling his wife, and that Darryl has "diddled" both of his brothers, we realize this is "Dysfunction Junction" indeed. What's more, the first act ends with yet another death.

In case I didn't mention it, this is a comedy -- and therein lies the problem for this otherwise well written play. A fine balance must be struck between the comedic and the serious. In some instances Kelley's direction achieves this brilliantly especially in the second act. But the beginning is rough going. When we first learn about Darryl's "diddling" we are shocked and horrified. Darryl' s anger at Tommy Lee, though it could be played for comedy, comes off as serious. By shouting, his fury only hits one note . Even though jokes are cracked in the interim, the audience struggles to figure out when it is appropriate to laugh.

In general, many of the actors' lines seemed rushed though this could have been caused by opening night jitters. For whatever reason, the first act's moments of comedy that could have been built between the lines were absent. We don't yet understand that, for the brothers, the subjects of death and rape are merely another day in east Texas.

The second act, however, gains the momentum lacking in the first. The sassy Charlene (a well cast Kara Greenberg) fills the stage, and her line delivery is right on target. Greenbergšs sardonic wit has us laughing along with her as she relates her past with all three brothers to the pregnant and constantly eating Sarah (an entertaining Dawn Burgess).

It is Nathan Brooks Burgess' portrayal of Tommy Lee, however, which carries the show. He manages to play both serious and comedic moments to optimum effect, leaving us heartbroken one moment and laughing the next. He invests himself completely in his role and, even when the choreography or staging doesn't quite work, wins us over with his sincerity and phenomenal stage presence.

The play clips along at a tight two hours despite weaknesses. As the characters rotate in and out so often, even if one scene doesn't work another takes over within minutes.

The last lines between Greenberg and Brooks Burgess are perfection. Charlene says goodbye to the cities she'll never see and the stage fades to black, leaving us with a somber ending to reflect the bleak beginning.

Though the show's dark subject matter creates problems, it also creates strengths. It is most satisfying to watch a play that deals so blatantly with taboo subject matter. Just don't tell anyone in Texas.

Playwright: Oliver Hailey
Director: Matt Kelley
Cast: Nathan Brooks Burgess (Tommy Joe), Jeff Kerr McGivney (Darryl), Kara Greenberg (Charlene), Dawn Burgess (Sarah), Drake Simpson (Big Boots)
Set Design: Kevin Holden
Lighting Design: Kara Greenberg & Matt Kelley
Sound Design: Matt Kelley
Running Time: 2 hours, with intermission.
From 11/12/04 to 12/18/04
Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038 (323) 960-7753
Thurs, Fri, Sat. 8pm Sunday 7pm -- $20
Reviewed by Ariana Mufson on November 12, 2004.
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