By Donna Herman
Roundabout Underground, which supports and cultivates the work of emerging playwrights and directors, is presenting “Kingdom Come” by Jenny Rachel Weiner as the first production of its tenth season. This is Weiner’s first full-length play to get a professional, non-University production (she’s got a BFA in theater from BU and an MFA in theater from Fordham), and she is the Tow Foundation 2016/2017 Playwright-In-Residence at Roundabout. She’s clearly got a bright future ahead of her.
Unfortunately, I don’t think “Kingdom Come” is going to be her breakout vehicle. What she’s got is a good idea: two women who don’t believe they are ‘enough,’ go online looking for love while pretending to be someone else. They find each other and form a bond. Weiner also has a great tag line: “What happens when the feelings are real but the people are not?” Okay, but see, the playwright has to make the characters real. Or at least behave believably.
Weiner has put the proverbial white elephant in the room in the character of 600 lb., bedridden Samantha (Carmen M. Herlihy) and then proceeded to practically ignore it. Everybody knows what a white elephant is, don’t they? Well, not really. We know what it is, physically. But how did this elephant end up in this bedroom/cage? And why is this female elephant pretending to be a male elephant in order to escape her cage? I’m not taking the analogy too far when the character is on stage, in bed, while the audience files in, pretending to be watching TV, and is being watched by the audience in turn. It’s uncomfortable, we’re watching her like a creature in a zoo. Is this what the playwright intends?
Samantha is watching “The Price is Right” with her home health aide Delores (Socorro Santiago) when the lights come up. We discover surprisingly little about her except that she makes a lot of self-deprecating fat jokes and doesn’t like her mother – although we never find out why, or meet her mother so we can figure it out for ourselves.
We find out a lot more about Delores, who is a minor character. Notably that she has a son named Dom (Alex Hernandez), an actor in LA who also works in a bakery to make ends meet. And for a reason we’re left to surmise, Samantha has chosen to set up a secret OK Cupid account with a profile using Dom’s identity and pictures “kingDOMcome42”.
Enter Layne (Crystal Finn), a geeky, anxiety-ridden, neurotic mess of a 33-year-old woman, hiding under her desk at work late at night, headphones on, desperately repeating affirmations to a tape while she waits for a bus home. Weiner has provided a foil for Layne in Suz (Stephanie Styles), the 23-year-old receptionist who is having an affair with the boss that has apparently just gone sour. And like Delores, we learn far more about Suz than Layne. Stephanie Styles doesn’t miss a trick in a classically smart and funny performance of a world-wise dumb-blond, who knows more about the world and men than Layne ever will.
Inevitably, Layne’s interactions with Suz convince her to try online dating and she too goes online and creates a profile “DelayedFlight82.” Layne’s alter ego is a stewardess, who embodies all the free-spirited, adventurous qualities she longs to possess. Crystal Finn, although a bit overwrought in the beginning trying to invest the character with more than she is given, does a good job of portraying her swings from anxiety driven speechlessness to nerdy hope and determination.
Online, Samantha/kingDOMcome42 is earnest and sincere, kindly and encouraging to the women she (?!) interacts with. In sharp contradiction to the sarcastic, biting repartee with which she engages the people she speaks to face to face. As written, there’s nobody home in the character of Samantha, and Carmen M. Herlihy struggles to make her come alive in more than a superficial way. Ms. Herlihy allows us to see that there’s somebody in there who’s hurting, but we can’t connect because the playwright hasn’t given us any back story or insight we can latch onto and recognize in ourselves or our own situations.
Inevitably, DelayedFlight82 and kingDOMcome42 meet and fall in love online while sharing their real hearts and minds. And just as inevitably, given the fact that Samantha has been using Dom’s real stats, when things get too “real” and kingDOMcome42/Samantha shuts down and DelayedFlight82/ Courtney/ Layne decides to go to the bakery and confront “him” in person, all gets revealed. The small plot twist at the end only confuses things and leaves us feeling right back where we started. Certainly the characters haven’t gotten their heart’s desires, and the audience, well, we’re frustrated. Which is not how we walked in. Is the message supposed to be that nobody wins?
Which brings me back to that poor white elephant, and us, the uncomfortable zoo audience, watching a large herd animal, trapped in a small cage outside of its natural habitat with only an occasional companion. Ms. Weiner has put us together without understanding what she’s playing with. As a playwright, she’s God. What does she intend for each of us, her creatures, in the end? What does she want us to know? How clever she is? She’s God, that’s assumed. We’re the dumb creatures who need not only the path lighted, but our final destination as well.
Kingdom Come by Jenny Rachel Weiner, Directed by Kip Fagan
WITH: Crystal Finn (Layne); Carmen M. Herlihy (Samantha); Alex Hernandez (Dom); Socorro Santiago (Dolores); Stephanie Styles (Suz Miller)
Set design by Arnulfo Maldonado; costume design by Tilly Grimes; lighting design by Thom Weaver; sound design by Daniel Perelstein; projection design by Darrel Maloney; casting by Carrie Gardner, Stephen Kopel, Jillian Cimini; production stage manager, Lisa Ann Chernoff; stage manager, Kara Kaufman; Presented by Roundabout Underground, artistic producer, Robyn Goodman; production management, Aurora Productions; founding director, Gene Feist. Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center, Black Box Theater, 111 West 46th Street, NYC. Limited engagement opening Nov.2nd through December 18th, 2016. Performances Tuesdays through Sunday evenings at 7pm and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30pm. For tickets call 212-719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org