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Theater Review

How a Teen Copes in a World Thrown 'Akimbo'

April 16, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

Time flies for Kimberly--and not only when she's having fun, which isn't all that often.

She has progeria, a condition that causes her body to age at 4 1/2 times its normal rate. So even though she's a teenager, she looks as if she's in her 70s. This isn't most people's idea of fun.

So does this mean that "Kimberly Akimbo," David Lindsay-Abaire's new play at South Coast Repertory, is an earnest disease-of-the-week docudrama? No way.

Even if Kimberly seldom has fun, a lot of theatergoers will at this breezy, foulmouthed, fleet-footed and, finally, warmhearted comedy.

We know we're not in TV-movie territory with the opening monologue, in which very pregnant Pattie (Ann Dowd), already the mother of Kimberly, is recording a message for her next child, her unborn "darling." Within a few lines, she is warning that most people are hateful blankety-blanks, that she expects to die soon--perhaps in childbirth--and that she contracted carpal tunnel syndrome while on a cupcake assembly line, which explains the enormous bandages that prevent her from using her hands.

Kimberly's father, Buddy (Steven Flynn), is no parental rock of Gibraltar either. He's a scrappy gas station attendant who escapes his problems by hanging out in bars until late at night.

Another familiar and purportedly adult presence in young Kimberly's life is her mother's sister Debra (Joanna P. Adler), a small-time crook whose addresses are either behind bars or behind the beanbag chairs in the public library reading room.

Kimberly and her parents just moved, under mysterious circumstances, from Secaucus to Teaneck, N.J.--not quite Noel Coward territory. Yet Lindsay-Abaire's characters are as self-absorbed and make as much comic hay as those in, say, Coward's "Hay Fever" (which is on my mind right now because of A Noise Within's current revival). In recent years, there have been many dark comedies about dysfunctional families--many of them at South Coast Repertory--but this is one of the funniest.

*

At the center of the storm is Kimberly (Marylouise Burke), who is trying to function as a teenager despite her old-lady looks, who helps feed her mother and makes excuses for her father. The decision to cast a mature woman in this part--instead of casting a young actress and trying to make her look older by makeup and posture--was smart. Older people can remember what it was like to be a teenager, but teenagers who try to look older usually fail.

Burke wears outfits that lower-class, non-trendy teenagers might wear--bell-bottomed denim overalls appear to be her favorite comfort clothes. She has marshaled a repertoire of girlish gestures and expressions to go along with the teen syntax Lindsay-Abaire's script provides for her. We never quite forget that the actress is no teenager, but the performance still resonates deeply, as a living emblem of the aging process that everyone faces.

The idea that one sane teenager, no matter how old she looks, is surrounded by a den of crazy adults might look like a pandering gesture to young audiences. This impression could be reinforced by the fact that Kimberly's one sympathetic confederate is a classmate (John Gallagher Jr., a real 16-year-old) whose family sounds just as troubled as Kimberly's.

It's true that here is one play that savvy and mature teenagers might appreciate. Still, the presence of Burke should answer any charges of pandering, especially in one silently striking moment when Kimberly changes her wardrobe and suddenly looks truly older. Recent Tony winner Martin Pakledinaz ("Kiss Me, Kate") designed the costumes.

Generally, director David Petrarca maintains a bright tone, with Dowd in particular getting the laughs through her portrayal of the crude and rude but helpless and hypochondriac Pattie. Flynn's character is a little more balanced--he intermittently tries to be a good father, and he's at his funniest when his efforts are falling apart.

Contributing to the finger-snapping pacing are Jason Robert Brown's and Bruce Ellman's jazzy soundtrack and Brian MacDevitt's playful lights in between scenes. Although the story is set in the present, Robert Brill's yellow and gray plaid backdrop--and the sunburst style of a fast-ticking clock that swings across the stage--suggest late '50s or early '60s. They may look hip, in a retro way, to theatergoers now, but in the buildings this family frequents, they probably never went out of fashion.

*

"Kimberly Akimbo," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends May 13. $28-$49. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Marylouise Burke: Kimberly

Ann Dowd: Pattie

Steven Flynn: Buddy

John Gallagher Jr.: Jeff

Joanna P. Adler: Debra

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by David Petrarca. Set by Robert Brill. Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Sound by Bruce Ellman. Original music by Jason Robert Brown. Stage manager Randall K. Lum.

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