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Glenda Frank

"Kin" by Bathsheba Doran


"KIN" by Bathsheba Doran. Directed by Sam Gold at Playwrights Horizons,
416 W. 42 St., NYC. March 21 - April 17, 2011.
Wed. - Sat. 8 PM. Sat. & Sun, 2:30 PM. Sun. 7:30 & Tues, 7 PM.
Seats: $70, $20 rush tickets for 30 or younger.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or http://www.playwrightshorizons.org.

"Kin," Bathsheba Doran's lively play at Playwrights Horizons offers a new take on the six degrees of separation that connect the world. Anna (Kristen Bush), the protagonist, is the center of several disparate universes. She is struggling to climb the academic career ladder, make peace with her emotionally distant dad, keep in touch with her erratic best friend, and find true love with a personal trainer (Patch Darragh) who has deep roots in Ireland. Added to all these interesting elements are playwright Doran's unique imagination and talent for engaging dialogue.

The play opens with a narcissistic professor (Matthew Rauch), who has been Anna's advisor and lover, dumping her. As she sits pigeon-toed, leaning forward with her head down, she interjects a sentence here and there. Her vulnerability wins our hearts. The Columbia professor's rich, compelling, and cold monologue introduces the first of many interpersonal collisions in the play. "I thought it was best not to keep you dangling," he intones. " I know what I'm looking for. It's not you."

In the next scene we meet Helena, Anna's best friend (Laura Heisler) in the middle of the night cradling a body wrapped in a blanket and lamenting. Turns out it's not a baby. It's her dog, and she plans to bury it in the park, despite a warning that it is illegal. She's angry and prepared -- with a flashlight and trowel. "I'll dig," she tells Anna. "She was my dog." The incongruous small touches, like that trowel, make the scene.

Many of the later moments are also clever and funny. In one, the erratic, unmarried best friend has retreated to a wooded area after a nervous breakdown. She folds her legs in the lotus position and closes her eyes. Her meditation is interrupted by a man with a rifle. Believing he is aiming at her, she begins a rant -- and then turns to see the brown bear behind her. (Nice homage to "A Winter's Tale"!) She hits the dirt but, curious, raises herself a bit to examine the bear. Between Helena's fear and the curiosity, Doran has us in the palm of her hand. And the scene keeps twisting. Helene decides that she is communing eye to eye with the bear, but the hunter, sensing an imminent attack, shoots over the bear's head -- and probably saves her life. She's outraged, then relieved, then kisses him. Turns out they're the same age, but the prince has a wife and 6 kids.

It's a terrific scene, but the other engaging and not-so-engaging scenes don't build enough to make a satisfying arc. The loose ends dangle, the character don't develop, and they lose appeal with each appearance. The love story is bewildering and underdeveloped. Why would an ambitious academic fall in love with a personal trainer whose most appealing quality is his Irish accent?

That's where the non-writers come in. "Kin" is very fortunately in its creative team, especially set designer Paul Steinberg. The play unfolds in a giant picture frame that transforms into a lighted room. Scene and frame switch locations, alter mood, provide the storybook edges to enclose this fable of modern times. Director Sam Gold has an impressive knack for pacing and he knows how to fill in a scene for maximum effect. His choice of the large dog in Linda's arms is the perfect emotional red herring: dead dog and (imagined) child as emotional nexus. He inserts a moving clock into the early scenes so that they seem connected. The heavy fog in the concluding hilltop wedding scene and Jane Cox's inspired lighting provide a coup de théâtre. Some of the tableaus he creates are picture perfect. His work on Annie Baker's slim script in "Circle Mirror Transformation" last season earned him a well-deserved Obie Award.

The role of Helena, the semi-hysterical friend, is challenging, but Laura Heisler, who plays it with a fast, high tragic delivery, is magnificent. She is not only compelling but poignant. Costume designer David Zinn helps out with mismatched outfits, identifying Helena as both the clown and the creative eccentric who saves Anna from staleness. (Anna's "brilliant" doctoral dissertation is on punctuation in Keats.) Cotter Smith as Anna's military dad who is trying to cope with loss (of wife and mistress) and his daughter's rage hits all his marks, as does Kit Flanagan, as the spunky mistress with terminal cancer. ("I have defeated Western medicine," she quips. "So I'm headed East.) Smith's scene on the treadmill is a knockout. He must be in great shape to run at all those different speeds and still deliver that performance!

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