Christopher Denham and Annette O'Toole in Kindness
(© Joan Marcus)
Christopher Denham and Annette O'Toole in Kindness
(© Joan Marcus)
The space between love and hate becomes uncomfortably close in writer/director Adam Rapp's taut and involving dark comedy, Kindness, now getting its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons.

Maryanne (Annette O'Toole) has brought her 17-year-old son Dennis (Christopher Denham) from the Midwest to New York City in an effort to spend a little quality time with him while she still can. She's dying of cancer, walks with a cane, and has to take a number of pills to cope with the pain. But Dennis would rather stay in the hotel than go with his mother to the hit new musical, Survivin!, so Maryanne takes cab driver Herman (Ray Anthony Thomas) instead. Meanwhile, the mysterious Frances (Katherine Waterston) finagles her way into Dennis' hotel room, and their encounter just might lead him to act on the murderous fantasies of killing his mother that he's been harboring.

Rapp has a way of building and maintaining tension that keeps the audience on edge. However, he knows how to insert humor without killing the momentum, making the play at turns hilarious and unsettling. His spot-on dialogue reveals the humanity of his characters, and sometimes their inhumanity, as well. He also gets in some sly digs at Broadway musicals and the audiences that attend them.

Denham is convincing as the socially awkward teenager he portrays; Dennis pretends to be apathetic when it's clear he cares about things all too deeply. The actor also has excellent timing, and carries out stage business -- such as running into a wall -- with comic precision. O'Toole does a fine job of conveying Maryanne's poor health without overdoing it, and the exasperation she expresses towards Dennis should be familiar to anyone who's ever seen a mother and son interact. Waterston is pitch-perfect as Frances, and the beguiling and seductive aura she generates makes it clear why Dennis responds to her the way he does. And while she may be manipulating him for her own purposes, Frances also listens to him, and gets past the emotional guards that he's set up. Thomas makes the most out of a slimly written part.

Lauren Helpern's set replicates the layout of a hotel room, but the sightlines make it difficult for those on the far house left to see what's on the TV screen at the top of the play, or what's happening outside the window at the end.

Kindness is one of the prolific Rapp's more naturalistic works, although he still includes an odd moment, or two. One of the best sequences in the show has Waterston lipsynching to the song, "White Rabbit," and while it never breaks the frame of the action, it has that added dose of theatricality that lifts the play out of the ordinary and makes it seem that anything could potentially occur.