Kinship, by Carey Perloff. Directed by Jo Bonney. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"It's so alluring you can't stop yourself!"
In every relationship there comes a point when "relationship" is not enough of a word to describe it. You can try love affair, or just affair or alimony or a whole bunch of "a" words including acrimony, allegory or apathy. No matter which way you travel in this relationship the words to describe exactly what relationship you're in will alter. Such is the case with She and He in Carey Perloff's play "Kinship" currently receiving its American premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. She and He move swiftly through a convoluted and confounding engagement of sorts, an engagement of wit and of style and of love and hate and humiliation and employment and creativity and, to add to the mix, multiple forms of motherhood.
Cynthia Nixon takes the role of She, a newspaper editor who has hired a talented but untried writer from Hollywood to work as a sort of paid apprentice. In very little time she finds herself thrown together with the younger man in all sorts of work experiences and discovers, to her amusement and fascination, that she is attracted to him. She is married, mother of two boys and a close friend of her mother's best friend. She has no room for an illicit romance in her life. But he is so alluring, and so available, and so uncommitted anywhere to anyone or anything. Even her annoyances with him amount to a mere handful of angry reproaches. Soon she loves him and she assumes he loves her. Blissful ending.
No. Not at all.
He is from a home that never broke even though his father knew that his mother was unfaithful. His parents remained together, not for the sake of the child but because even though she had loved another, and loves him still, it was clear how much she loved her husband and her son. Still, he has never forgiven her and now that he has returned to the city where he had once lived it is not clear whether his mother and he can live in the same place with any ease or comfort.
According to the program this play is set in a "west coast American city." The many references to the son who "came from California" and the equal number of references to the "young man from Hollywood" make the show feel like it is set in a city much further eastward, Chicago or New York or possibly Boston. A theater company has taken possession of a church basement where they are presenting Racine's Phedre. The Catholic Church wants them out. There is a hint somewhere that inappropriate acts have been committed in the church and the editor and reporter go after the story. The description of the area where all this takes place seems so very much like the lower east side in New York. She and He travel to Washington DC for a night and that is also something that could happen from an east coast city with ease and at little expense to him. Confusion reigns on place, just as it does on relationships.
Nixon is, as she has been so often before, brilliant in the role of She. Her edginess and her romantic demeanor clash with a lightning magnitude that illumines the struggle this woman contends with in the play. We can see on her face the beauty of anguish. We can feel the muscles in her legs strain as she gives way to her powerful desires. Nixon takes the professional out of this professional and shows us the animal power that She has ultimately under her control. When she lusts it is profound and overwhelming. When she denies her own desires, the resultant coldness is palpable; she makes us feel it along with her. When she exults in her children and her pride in them is paramount she exhibits a physical beauty to match her emotional joy. This is a performance that outshines many others in her long list of fine theatrical work.
Chris Lowell plays He, her vis-a-vis, her paramour, her trainee and her enemy. He plays the cooler aspects of his character with an aloofness that is chilling, mesmerizing really. The sincerity with which he utters words of rejection is underplayed but very real. His emotional highs are overplayed but equally genuine. It is as if acting has not entered into the equation but as if Lowell was using the author's words to express his own feelings. In his scenes with Nixon he is never visibly conscious of an audience other than her. He plays to her and only to her and he brings out the same reaction in her. Though this play is truly hers, it is his presence that creates the power she exerts over him and over us.
He is just as fine in his scenes with Penny Fuller as His Mother. This actress has come so far in her career and the results show in this performance. Though not as clearly focused a character as She or He, His Mother has much to say and says it in spite of what would be her better judgement if she knew all the facts up front. Fuller plays two relationships on this stage, not just His Mother but also her Friend. She has the unique job of playing confidante to She and guiding her affair with a young lover not realizing that it is her own son involved in this relationship. At the same time she is trying to discover and guide her son's affair, swaying him away from his "unknown" friend and into a different affair entirely. Fuller is at her finest in the last scene she plays with Nixon where the recently suspected truths spill out between them.
Jo Bonney has clearly spent much time with these characters and with the actors who play them. The results of her work are a seamless production through which we confront the smart truths that smart with their honesty. On a simple, functional set by Rachel Hauk, in costumes that cleanly represent their characters backgrounds designed by Candice Donnelly under the interesting and moody lighting by Philip Rosenberg, the stage in the Nikos Theatre is home to a most unusual and interesting trio of players.
Basically sold out, this very short production is still being tweaked by its creators. If you can get a ticket, you should see it. If you can't get a ticket you should complain to the management. There aren't that many really interesting plays around and you shouldn't have to miss this one.
Cynthia Nixon; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Chris Lowell and Cynthia Nixon as He and She; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Penny Fuller; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Kinshipplays through July 25 in the Nikos Theatre at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. Tickets for this eleven performance play may be purchased at the box office, 413-597-3400. Or go on line to wtfestival.org.