Patch Darragh and Kristen Bush in Kin
(© Joan Marcus)
Patch Darragh and Kristen Bush in Kin
(© Joan Marcus)
Familial relationships -- both biological and of the sort that people create for themselves with their friends and partners -- are explored with gentle and thoughtful compassion in Bathsheba Doran's Kin, now receiving a terrifically acted production at Playwrights Horizons.

The play is filled with smart, staccato dialogue that the expert company brings to life with sensitivity, and some hilarious zingers, which never sound as if they've been ripped from sitcoms. However, the episodic (and intermissionless) play feels overwritten at times, which can lead to impatience on the part of some audience members, and director Sam Gold's staging leans toward the overly busy, utilizing the spare ever-shifting scenic design from Paul Steinberg.

It's difficult to know where Doran might be taking theatergoers after the play's first three scenes. In the first one, Anna (Kristen Bush) is being dumped by Simon (Matthew Rauch), a Columbia professor who, in addition to being her lover, has been her teacher and advisor. This sequence is followed by one in which Anna meets her friend Helena (Laura Heisler) in a park late one night to help the latter bury her dead dog, and a scene in which a young Irishman Sean (Patch Darragh) chats on the phone with his agoraphobic mother Linda (Suzanne Bertish) in his homeland.

The show's narrative arc, though, does become evident in short order as Anna and Sean start dating. Ultimately, it's through their relationship, which theatergoers watch evolve over seven years, that an extended family is created that includes not only their biological relatives, including Sean's uncle (Bill Buell) and Anna's widowed father Adam (Cotter Smith), but also Adam's ex-girlfriend (a superb cameo from Molly Ward) and Adam's cancer-ridden friend and confidante Kay (played movingly by Kit Flanagan). It all adds up to a grand portrait of how relationships are sustained in an era when technology can shatter geographic barriers.

At the center of the show is Bush's intelligent portrayal of Anna, which deftly blends emotional fragility with barbed defensiveness. Equally appealing is Darragh, who strikes just the right balance of clueless guyishness and warm, loving empathy. Smith's work as Adam is also keenly crafted, as he endows the man's drawling, good ole boy persona with an unexpected softness.

Perhaps most impressive is the work that comes from Bertish and Heisler, both of whom have the most dramatic roles in the piece. Bertish finds the subtle shades of sadness and regret within the rage of her character's alcoholic present and tragedy-strewn past, while Heisler finds an infinite number of variations on Helena's frantic neuroticism.

By the play's end, theatergoers are not only pleased to know that Anna and Sean's life has weathered its storms, but also to know that these two women are part of this deeply caring clan.