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Marylouise Burke in Kimberly Akimbo
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
A couple of new plays per season, in rare cases a handful, receive as fine a production as Manhattan Theatre Club's New York premiere of Kimberly Akimbo, the latest comic confection by David Lindsay-Abaire. One might argue the newness of a piece written three years ago and performed previously elsewhere, but the playwright is a Juilliard graduate of only 33, so even his oldest plays are relatively new. The good news is that the latest effort of the writer who might become this generation's American Alan Ayckbourn is just as tight as were his previous two works at MTC: the hit Fuddy Meers and the less successful Wonder of the World.

Yet one can't help but notice a pattern. The Kimberly of the play's title is, like her counterparts in Meers and World, a young woman with a strange ailment who navigates her way hilariously through life as we laugh merrily, comfortably along. Lindsay-Abaire is the dramatist laureate of this subject matter, and while he has fully exploited its comic potential, one sometimes feels while watching Kimberly as if a theatrical DVD player has broken and is repeating certain scenes.

Still, the show is rollicking fun. Robert Brill's set is so inventive and loopy that it matches the play step for step. (One thinks of Ginger mirroring Astaire's every step, backward and in heels.) The performances are almost universally dead-on, with Marylouise Burke in her fourth terrific collaboration with Lindsay-Abaire as the titular teenager suffering from a premature aging condition. This role is probably the best of the four for Burke, and the novelty of seeing an older actress collapse her age by 50 years through her manner alone is astonishing. Kudos must certainly go to David Petrarca who, following his direction of the playwright's breakthrough Fuddy Meers two years ago at MTC, returns with his talents for pacing, tone, and timing in full evidence.

The story of the play opens in Bogota, New Jersey, outside an ice rink where Kimberly waits for her father, who is late in picking her up. Lindsay-Abaire's signature tone is quickly established in a wacky-yet-tender moment between the disappointed daughter and her regular-Joe dad. A gas station attendant who likes his brew but forgets his kid, yet shows genuine remorse for that failing, Buddy is played by Jake Weber with a goofiness and vulnerability that makes him more lovable than he ought to be. His performance reminds one of Nicolas Cage's work in the Coen Brothers' film Raising Arizona. (The play's premise of forgetful parents scheming in comically macabre ways also calls that film to mind.)

Unfortunately, Jodie Markell plays Kimberly's mother, Pattie, without adding dimensions to this cartoonishly self-involved character; the play is less engaging than it might have been because we never expect decent behavior from Pattie after the first scene. As the dilemmas of Kimberly's life unfold, including a romantic flirtation with schoolmate Jeff, whose obsession with anagrams is hilarious ("Mother-in-Law" becomes "Woman Hitler"), we become aware that her problem is less her disease than the thoughtlessness of her family. Jeff is her bright spot; his cautious attentions are a lovely bit of fantasy, and his winning depiction by John Gallagher Jr. inspires great confidence in this young actor's future.

Ana Gasteyer and Marylouise Burke
in Kimberly Akimbo
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Jeff provides some of the moments of human decency that help us connect to a story that rarely strays from the broad satire of Saturday Night Live. In fact, a former cast member of that show, Ana Gasteyer, here plays an original version of the psychopathic relative -- Pattie's sister Debra -- with a nice physicality and focus. Finally, though, it is Burke's performance as Kimberly Levaco (an anagram of "cleverly Akimbo," Jeff tells her) that amazes the audience. Her work is so good that we wish the poignant thematic possibilities of Kimberly's condition had been more intrepidly explored by the playwright.

What we get instead is a well-crafted comedy that does not touch us as deeply as we might have wished; indeed, several patrons were heard speculating about the point of the piece afterwards. The playwright did not delve deeply enough into the themes he presents here -- e.g., the arrested development of the adults in Kimberly's life and, perhaps, society at large -- to give the piece the resonance that the best comedies have, causing us to think long after we stop laughing. One hopes that Lindsay-Abaire will soon develop the confidence to wrestle with a tradition of serious drollery from Mark Twain onward, taking greater risks in order to yield greater rewards.

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