There are any number of splendid ideas bouncing around like atoms in the new play, “Kinship,” on stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 25, but instead of creating any kind of “frisson,” they tend to just fizzle out and die before the final curtain. Yes, this American premiere by Carey Perloff, the long-time Artistic Director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, does deal with some important contemporary hot button issues, including sexual harassment, mentor-mentee relationships and the manipulation of power. But most of the time, however, the audience is waiting in suspense for those moments that we know are coming in which the three characters will discover the knotty ways in which they are all connected.
Perloff to her credit does turn the issue of sexual harassment and power on its head by making the perpetrator a woman, the dynamic, high profile editor of a successful print and online empire, who hires an attractive young man, an unsuccessful screenwriter, to fill a reporter position. We assume that this is the young man she refers to in the short prologue, in which she ponders whether or not she hired him because of his good looks, or whether his writing ultimately made him attractive to her. Nonetheless she becomes rather obsessed by the young man and the attention she lavishes on him leads him to return her feelings, as they gradually profess their desire, need and yearning for each other.
In Perloff’s carefully structured chronology, we see how the woman and the young man (there are no names, they are called she and he in the program) meet cute as he comes in for an interview, but the script then passes over the circumstances of her making the decision only to drop in on their developing relationship the next time we see them together. That will happen throughout the play, as action is picked up sometime after the previous scene, with the characters having given some thought and even made some decisions, prior to the subsequent scene.
Early on, we meet the editor’s close friend, an older woman who was a friend of the editor’s mother, but who the editor only met at her mother’s funeral. A close supportive intimate relationship has rather quickly developed, with the editor finding comfort and relief in her friend’s maternal instincts, clearly filling part of the void left by her own mother’s passing.
The older friend has her own history, as an established actress who left her family for the attentions of another famous, charismatic actor. As a result, she has been estranged from her son, who is now pursuing a guarded relationship with his mother upon his return from his debacle as a screenwriter in Hollywood. The audience is let in on how all three are interrelated, but the characters pursue their lives completely in the dark, with the son discussing with his mother the relationship developing between him and his unnamed boss, and the editor sharing her feelings about her unnamed employee with her close friend. Yes, it does beg credulity, since you’d think someone would drop a name or mention the place of employment, but when your names are “She,” “He,” and “His Mother/Friend” I guess you live in a world without proper nouns.
Perloff readily admits that she started out writing this play as a riff on Racine’s play “Phedre,” in which a queen falls in love with her stepson. The resulting play bears little resemblance to the Racine or the original Greek myth, even though the characters end up seeing a production of the work at one time or another. Where the parallels are the strongest, however, is in the reaction of the editor to what she assumes is a rejection by her employee. Like Phedre, she imagines a ruthless revenge that will destroy his career (as she has the power to do so), but unlike Phedre, she doesn’t follow through.
Perloff employs other significant parallels throughout the play as well. The son still recalls his feelings of hurt and rejection when his mother ran off with the actor, and he is stopped in his tracks when he meets the editor’s young son, and can imagine the toll his potential relationship with the child’s mother would take on the young lad. There is the maternal relationship between the employee’s mother and the editor, which seems genuinely stronger than the relationship between the mother and son, which is clearly substituting for the editor’s relationship with her own mother.
Jo Bonney has directed “Kinship” with exquisite care, and has cast the production with some equally exquisite performers. Cynthia Nixon very ably grapples with the complex role of the editor, a busy, powerful businesswoman who also maintains an active family life with husband and two children, but who has definitely been pushing herself, even more so, as we suspect, to recover from her mother’s passing. Nixon easily and impressively manages her character’s frequent jumps from anguished job-related mobile phone conversation to calmer human interaction on a dime, while conveying the woman’s intelligence and competence, along with her own awe and wonder at her delighted attraction to this young man that grows into a more controlling sort of obsession.
We also believe the depth of the friendship between the two women, the other compelling played by the brilliant Penny Fuller, who demonstrates the friend’s ability to be supportive without judgment and a wisdom gained from the natural mistakes of well-lived life. Fuller allows her character to take a slightly sterner attitude toward her son, a bit more wary of his relationship with a superior. She realizes the connections before the other characters do, and when confronted with her friend’s oversized rage, Fuller expresses her character’s anguish with a steady determination that could vanquish everything in sight.
Chris Lowell, who audiences might remember from “Veronica Mars” and “Private Practice,” where he played the doomed APRN, gives a fine performance as the good looking yet loopy writer, who probably doesn’t have the talent to be a good reporter, but is enthralled by the attention of his boss which encourages him to reciprocate her feelings, even though this situation is new ground for both.
Candice Donnelly has dressed both women in some lovely outfits—and it is a tribute to Nixon and Fuller that they can wear such clothes—whether in yoga class or at a classy restaurant—so well. Rachel Hauck’s scenery is masterful at hinting the changing locales, with glass partitions and runways providing a high tech feel for the magazine office, tables and chairs moving in an out for kitchens or restaurants, and platforms and outlines creating hallways and hotel room doors. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting is evocative of the differing locations, as well as assisting in the various set changes.
What one realizes only after the show is that all of the scenes consist of only two characters. The three actors are never on stage simultaneously—each interaction is a one on one between two characters. This allows some tension to build toward the end of intermissionless evening, as the encounters become more confrontational and heated.
The odd coincidence of the central conceit, that all three characters share a connection unknown to one other, seems to minimize any type of broader statement that Perloff would like to make. “Kinship” becomes very centered and focused on this situation, though we do get some insights into the nature and strangling power of obsession and how it can affect even the most logical and educated among us.