NEW YORK—Blanche DuBois once said something about kindness, but this term is somewhat relative in Adam Rapp's new drama of the same name now at Playwrights Horizons.
Maryanne (Annette O’Toole) and her 17 year-old son, Dennis (Christopher Denham), have fled Illinois for a trip to New York, following her painful divorce. Currently the two, who have a sometimes combative relationship (common to all mothers and teenage sons), are at odds over Dennis's desire not to join his mom at the most popular Broadway musical in town. (It's called "Survivors" but numerous references make it sound more like "Rent;" musical theater lovers will enjoy the various nods to that recently closed tuner). When Dennis remains steadfast in his decision to not go to the show, Maryanne offers his ticket to Herman (Ray Anthony Thomas), a divorced cab driver who struck up a conversation with Maryanne while chauffeuring her around town.
However, Dennis's night of relaxation doesn't come off as planned for walking through the door is Frances (Katherine Waterston), a lovely 28 year-old woman with sensuality to spare. Her explanation for entering unannounced: she's seeking a place to rest (and perhaps hide for a while). At first Dennis verbally spars with the intriguing stranger, but Frances, who knows exactly which of Dennis's buttons to push (ranging from being a flirtatious tease to a frightened deer in a car's headlights), soon entrances him with her story. It seems she needs Dennis as her alibi in an elaborate game of revenge. But is she telling the truth? Nothing about her is quite what it seems to be.
While Frances takes a few hours respite before carrying out what she says is her plan, Dennis is battling with demons of his own. His mother, whom he loves dearly despite some of their conversations, is gravely ill with cancer, and it’s tearing him apart to see his mother suffer so. However, circumstances offer Dennis an option that can end the pain for both of them, if he chooses to implement it.
Casting and chemistry is important here, with Dennis being the main anchor of the play. Fortunately, playwright Rapp, who also directed the piece, has a firm grasp of the character, with enough information to allow Denham to realistically portray a teenager in emotional turmoil. Due to his mother's illness and his parent's divorce, he's someone who's had to become a man a bit before he's ready, and he embraces Frances's appearance as if it's a chance to alter his existence. He's not totally sure what's going on but definitely wants to see where this meeting will take him.
Denham is helped by having Waterston to play off of, who is wonderful as a chameleon; one that's intriguing whether she assumes the air of a party girl, a sensuous flirt, or an "older woman" friend. The role of Frances is written as a bit of a cipher, so one really doesn't know what to believe about her—leaving the audience to try to fill in the blanks.
O'Toole is good as Maryanne, a middle-aged woman trying to have some fun (and strike up new friendships) in the big city. But as her illness becomes apparent, the character conversely comes fully alive, while, at the same time, the disease attacks her and she cries in anguish. This is a character that goes from wanting to live life to the fullest in one moment, to just wanting the excruciating pain to end the next. As with Waterston, O'Toole's performance is enhanced by having Denham to play against, as he shifts from the angry rebellious son to her valiant support system.
Thomas works well enough as Herman, but the actor has precious little to do, and it would be nice to see his role expanded somewhat. (Rapp seems to have preferred to focus on the relationship between the other three characters.) But even so, there are elements of interest present, enough to show Herman as a lonely, divorced man looking to connect with Maryanne on some level.
Lauren Helpern's set of the hotel room is very good, as are the costumes by Daphne Javitch and lighting effects by Mary Louise Geiger. Good work by Rapp, in his role as director in building the tension till the very end.
The title of the play works on many levels, not only with what might happen when one opens a door to a stranger (both literally and emotionally), but also that each of the four, through various interactions, is able to experience moments that are thrilling, mysterious, and happy—at least for a little while.
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Running Time: Two Hours, 10 Minutes
Closes: Nov. 2
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.