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Theatre in Review: Kingdom Come (Roundabout Underground)

Stephanie Styles, Carmen Herlihy. Photo: Joan Marcus

Kingdom Come begins with the sight of the actress Carmen M. Herlihy, in an enormous fat suit, lying in bed; one look and it's impossible not to think of Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, which, at Playwrights Horizons a few seasons back, presented Shuler Hensley in pretty much the same predicament. Jenny Rachel Weiner, who wrote Kingdom Come, isn't yet anywhere near as skilled as Hunter, but I have a feeling she will be catching up with him any day now. Like Hunter, she has a true compassion for lost and lonely people inhabiting the American West. She is also gifted with her own yarn-spinning skills and the ability to create a lively cast of characters, many of whom will do just about anything for a chance at love.

Herlihy plays Samantha Carlin, a young woman who, after high school, allowed her weight to balloon to unmanageable proportions. She is largely confined to her bed; we see her try to stand up and retrieve her television's remote control -- a brief, wordless sequence that reveals just how bad her situation is. Samantha doesn't want anyone's sympathy; "I'm just fat," she says, adding that her condition has much to do with her rage at her overly Botoxed mother, whom we never see. In any case, she seems more than happy to stay in bed, eating junk food and watching junk television. (The Price is Right is a particular favorite.)

Next, Weiner switches gears, presenting Layne Falcone, who works for an insurance company in Carson City, Nevada (where most of the play's characters live). Layne is a total bundle of nerves -- among other things, she is terrified of auto airbags. We first see her at the office, late at night, surreptitiously listening to a tape of "affirmations." ("I choose to release the fears I have projected onto my body") Layne is uncommonly gawky for a woman in her 30s, and as dressed by the costume designer, Tilly Grimes, she has a gray complexion that threatens to fade into her gray suit, creating a depressingly monochromatic effect. It doesn't help her confidence that her only friend on the job is Suz Miller, the office's blonde bombshell receptionist, who is having an affair with their married boss.

Layne would like a little male companionship, too, although she has no idea how to go about it. So, she turns to OkCupid, foolishly reinventing herself as a leggy blonde named Courtney. She quickly makes contact with Dom, a baker from Los Angeles with the looks of a male model and a level of sensitivity to women rarely found outside films featured on the Hallmark Channel. Before long, the two are having some remarkably steamy chat sessions. Layne is over the moon about this unexpected development, but Suz, who has been there, deflates her, saying that, in all probability, Dom "is a middle-school boy in Texas."

Actually, Dom is really Samantha, who, for the Internet, has adopted the role of a studly young man. Dom's photos, and many of the details of his life, are cadged from the real-life Dom, the son of Delores, Samantha's home health-care aide. (Dom, a would-be actor/model, occasionally pitches in, caring for Samantha when he is in town visiting his mother.) The scenes in which Samantha and Layne, in the guise of their fictional online personae, romance each other are extraordinarily well-done -- filled with longing and deception, they are a vivid reminder that surprisingly few contemporary playwrights have yet begun to contend with the role that social media now plays in our lives.

Having established this situation, however, Weiner finds herself somewhat cornered and is forced to overplay her hand in order to get some kind of resolution. She would have you believe that Layne, who doesn't drive, somehow persuades a rental agency to give her a car so she can race through the night to confront Dom. She would also have you believe that Layne and Dom, after a farcical first meeting, would strike up a romance. And she throws together all of the characters at a thoroughly implausible birthday party hosted by Delores, who somehow thinks the guests, all of whom are north of thirty, would be interested in playing a few rounds of pin the tail on the donkey.

Many of these later antics distract us from Samantha, who remains the most compelling character on stage. Weiner seriously skimps on the details of her life, including what triggered her binge eating and what her family is like. (Is there a family beyond her mother?) Still, even when less than convincing, the playwright's unsentimental compassion for her characters is such that you are avid to find out what happens next.

Kip Fagan's direction goes a long way toward reining in the script's excesses and his cast is especially skilled at navigating the hairpin turns from farce to sadness. In other hands, Samantha could be dismissed as a bizarre, destructive character, but Herlihy keeps her thoroughly sympathetic, even fascinating. The scene in which she engages in ironic, romantic-comedy byplay with Dom, a conversation that ends in an unexpected kiss, tells you all you need to know about the armor that she has formed around herself. Crystal Finn knows exactly how to take Layne right to the edge of caricature without stepping over the line; her scenes of online seduction with "Dom" are almost painful to watch, so revealing are they of her desperation. (The moment when she discovers that "Dom's" favorite film is The American President is a high point; Layne never imagined finding a man who would share her obsession.) Alex Hernandez provides plenty of nuance as Dom, showing the hurt and disappointment behind his chiseled good looks, and his awareness that, in LA's showbiz jungle, his assets are a dime a dozen. If Stephanie Styles occasionally goes too far as Suz, she does make you believe that Suz might actually care about the hapless Layne. Similarly, Socorro Santiago can be a little shrill as Delores, but she remains fairly likable throughout.

Despite the obvious limitations of Roundabout Underground's studio space, once again a design team has provided highly professional work. Arnulfo Maldonado's set depicts Samantha's characterless apartment -- clearly she is too bedridden to care about decorating -- but it also stands in reasonably well for Layne's office, her bedroom, and the bakery where Dom works. Thom Weaver's sensitive, surprisingly detailed lighting is helpful in realizing all these locations. Darrel Maloney's projections show us the details of various Internet chats, along with blurry shots from The American President and set-wide imagery of Fiji. ("Courtney" is a globetrotting flight attendant.) Grimes' costumes and Daniel Perelstein's sound are also solid.

To her credit, Weiner arranges a finale that finds Samantha and Layne once again reaching out to each other, seeking to recreate the magic of a relationship that has been totally discredited. It's a quietly devastating comment on the way we live now: For some of us, the fictional affection to be found in the digital universe may seem more authentic than what is on offer in the real world. -- David Barbour

(21 November 2016)

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