Lisa Kron, John Hoffman, Christina Kirk, Jayne Houdyshell,Saidah Arrika Ekulona, and Daniel Breaker in Well
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lisa Kron, John Hoffman, Christina Kirk, Jayne Houdyshell,
Saidah Arrika Ekulona, and Daniel Breaker in Well
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"Don't bring your mother on stage with you," warns Lisa Kron. But that's precisely what this writer/performer does in Well, the smart, funny, and imaginative play -- or, as she likes to call it, "theatrical exploration" -- in which she simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs stage conventions while also delving into the complexities of race relations, memory, and illness.

Well begins with a lone figure onstage, whom we soon find out is the playwright's mother, Ann (Jayne Houdyshell). She is soon joined by Kron, who lays out the purported goals of her piece, setting up the "convention of internal monologue" to denote when she is speaking to the audience and when she is acting within a scene. She announces her intention to tell two interrelated tales: how her mother successfully led a campaign to make her neighborhood integrated across color lines, and Kron's own experience as a 19-year-old at an allergy unit that tested her for various potential allergens. However, this plan soon goes disastrously -- and hilariously -- awry.

While Kron insists to the audience that "this play is not about my mother and me," Ann begins to interrupt her daughter's stories, interacts with the other actors who appear to take part in the action, and hijacks the play's narrative arc. "Lisa, I've noticed a number of inaccuracies here," she says, pointing out the ways in which Kron's stories leave out certain details or play fast and loose with the facts. Throughout Well, metatheatrical devices such as this one are used to enrich and complicate the piece, and to provide moments of ironic humor. Kron peels back layer after layer of artifice, exposing her unreliability as the narrator of this autobiographical play and also calling into question the constructs of theater. Leigh Silverman's tight direction keeps the production cohesive and the performances sharp.

Kron is not only a talented and witty writer, she's a dynamic actor as well. Her face is marvelously expressive and her comic timing is impeccable. She comes across as a little forced in a few of the play's more dramatic moments but, overall, her performance is a joy. The same can be said of Houdyshell, who never hits a false note, completely inhabiting the role of Kron's mother with a disarmingly quirky charm. While some of her attitudes and mannerisms could easily have seemed stereotypical, Houdyshell avoids this pitfall and instead creates a rounded, complex characterization.

All of the other cast members -- John Hoffman, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Daniel Breaker, and Christina Kirk -- play multiple roles, including themselves as actors in the show. Often, these characters are purposely exaggerated, but both Ekulona and Kirk get to play some more emotionally grounded dramatic moments and do so with conviction.

Tony Walton's scenic design features, at one side of the stage, a cluttered, naturalistic environment that represents Ann's home. (Adding to the show's self-referential aesthetic, the set includes a poster of Lisa Kron's award-winning solo show 2.5 Minute Ride.) The rest of the stage consists of a platform from which Kron delivers her asides to the audience and a space where the various characters act out the remaining scenes. As the play continues and its structure breaks down, the set also reveals its artificiality as portions of it collapse and reveal the back wall of the theater.

John Gromada's original music and sound design are crucial to the show, helping to set both mood and tempo. Christopher Akerlind's lighting, Miranda Hoffman's costumes, and Tom Watson's wig design also make substantial contributions.

Well debuted at The Public Theater in 2004, garnering rave reviews. It has a downtown sensibility that shows Kron's roots in creating experimental work as a solo artist and with the groundbreaking troupe Five Lesbian Brothers, of which she is a founding member. Kron, Houdyshell, and Ekulona are all reprising the roles they played in the Public production; the rest of the ensemble is made up of different actors. There do not seem to have been any major changes in the script, and this is for the best. Well was brilliant Off-Broadway and remains so on Broadway.