Saving Kitty

July 23, 2015

in Plays

Play (2013)
by Marisa Smith

Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner

Scenic Design: Steven Royal

The Nora Theatre Company
Central Square Theater, Cambridge
July 9 – August 2, 2015

With Jennifer Coolidge (Kate Hartley), Lydia Barnett-Mulligan (Kitty Hartley), Alexander Cook (Huntley Hartley), Lewis D. Wheeler (Paul Cook)

Jennifer Coolidge as Kate Hartley in 'Saving Kitty'

Jennifer Coolidge as Kate Hartley
in “Saving Kitty”
Photo: Courtesy of Central Square Theater

A very funny portrayal of an outrageous mother trying to undermine her daughter’s new relationship with a born-again Christian.

Kitty (Lydia Barnett Mulligan), a broadcaster in her mid-twenties, comes home to her parents in New York with her new serious boyfriend, Paul (Lewis D. Wheeler). Shortly after arriving, it becomes apparent that Paul is a born-again Christian, which does not sit easily with Kitty’s parents, Kate (Jennifer Coolidge) or Huntley (Alexander Cook), though clearly Kate is far more agitated about it than Huntley is. So begins Kate’s one woman campaign to break up the relationship. Meanwhile, things not so heavenly in Kate’s and Huntley’s marriage rise to the surface while Kate undertakes to challenge the appearances of heavenliness in her daughter’s relationship with Paul.

Jennifer Coolidge, featured prominently in Christopher Guest’s wonderful mockumentaries Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003), is a total scream in this well written and directed comedy of manners. An adept actress as well as a talented clown, she manages to convey the heartfelt core of her character while creating one outrageous scene after the next. Her capacity to be so unabashedly wild gives the role, and the performance, its wonderful charm.

Part she-devil, part devoted mother, Kate aims to poke as many holes in Paul’s shiny exterior as she possibly can. At once subtle and blustery, suggestive and bombastic, she releases any number of sallies. Some emerge through innuendo, some through straight talk, but whatever the vehicle, she comes down on the side of earthy realism, strong medicine for Paul’s narrow and self-righteous intensity. Much of the very funny dialogue involves long interchanges between Kate and Paul, much involving her subtle and direct attacks upon him. When Paul eventually begins to show cracks, Kate is there to egg him on.

In a great talk-back after the show, playwright Smith noted that she got the germinating idea for the play when she encountered conservative evangelical Christians in Hanover, NH, otherwise a center of secular liberalism. She created out of that germ encounter a wild comedy that evokes an unexpected poignancy. The writing is outrageously funny without feeling contrived, and its tone fits in extremely well with Coolidge’s talent for being hilarious without seeming to force laughs.

As well in the talk-back, Coolidge said that when she read the play initially – given to her by, as she put it, a friend of a friend of a friend – she was really attracted to the strong and interesting female lead, but felt that when she and playwright Smith got together to talk that a sense of enthusiasm for the project really emerged. She said she loved to really develop her character’s capacity to taunt Paul, and enjoyed the freedom of the stage to enable her to do that freely.

The play clearly relies on a series of caricatures, Coolidge’s Kate the most vivid of these, daring protocol at every turn, making outrageous comments that one barely believes possible. A little like Mae West in her outspokenness and sensual glee, but thrust into a more dramatic situation, she maintains her capacity to deliver wit-filled sallies under trying circumstances.

The other characters are solid straight men and women for the glowingly bad Kate.

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan is an energetic and enthralled Kitty, traveling from buttoned down and prim to looser and more robustly easygoing with seeming ease.

Lewis D. Wheeler is an effective Paul, straightlaced and austere on arrival and showing more vulnerabilities as time winds down.

Alexander Cook as Huntley Hartley – only a comic writer could come up with that name – is stodgy and evasive enough to provide a nice foil to Kate.

Direction by Lee Mikeska Gardner is most effective overall.

The scenic design by Steven Royal is really spectacular for this small venue, conveying a quite delineated and varied space, inventively angled.

– BADMan

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