Organ donation may not be something you automatically associate with comedy, but playwright Michael Hollinger attempts to find the zanier side of bum kidneys and dysfunctional family dynamics in his new play Under the Skin.
Everyman Theater and director Vincent M. Lancisi do their level best with the production, which features a striking hospital set by Brandon Mitchell, aided by Jay A. Herzog’s merciless antiseptic lighting, as well as well-etched performances by a top-notch cast.
However, the play is about as enjoyable as a catheter, melodramatic and pocked with cheap laughs about infidelity, lies and abandonment by neglectful fathers. Instead of smart and funny, Hollinger’s usual mode, Under the Skin settles for predictable platitudes about blood relations that you might find on painted wood wall hangings in the family room.
Tough guy Lou (Mitchell Hebert) is a master carpenter and unrepentant SOB who is now in need of a kidney. He goes about it in his typical ham-fisted fashion—banging on the door of his estranged daughter Raina (Megan Anderson) after a long absence. Emblematic of his cocky self-absorption, he arrives with a gift of a crib mobile for the 4-year-old grand-daughter he has never seen.
When the reunion goes about as well as a confrontation on Game of Thrones, Lou sets out to find other potential donors to emotionally blackmail. One thing you can say about Lou, he is always 100% himself—ruthless in getting what he wants. But what can you expect from a guy who used “Mack the Knife” as a lullabye?
The visit sparks anger and guilt in the already stressed Raina, who travels to Philadelphia to see her father. This volatile mix of emotions sucks Raina in, until she feels compelled to see if she is a good candidate for kidney donation.
After meeting the kind, steady Dr. Badu (Alice M. Gatling, bringing lightness and strength to a variety of roles), Raina begins the testing process and meets-cute with a fellow potential donor, Jarrell (an engaging Keith L. Royal Smith).
There’s nothing like urine sample jugs to bring two people together and before you can say “dialysis,” Raina and Jarrell are snuggled under his Star Wars big-boy blanket in his childhood bedroom—Jarrell is temporarily camped out at his mother Marlene’s (Alice M. Gatling again) house to save money to move to New York.
Raina and Jarrell’s hook up sparks all sorts of awkward revelations, entanglements and cliffhangers that viewers of soap operas and reality shows will be all-too familiar with. Will Lou get his kidney even though he’s a big jerk? Cue us when we’re supposed to care.
For a play rife with dramatic fodder, Under the Skin is oddly mundane. The action is confined to people sitting down, standing with arms crossed defensively and moving set pieces around. Oh yes, and talking—talking amongst themselves, breaking the fourth wall to address the audience, yakking and endlessly explaining themselves.
Hebert and Anderson try to rise about the blather to craft portraits of vivid, compelling rudeness—they are chips off the same block, it appears. But even these pros can’t overcome a play that fails to get under your skin, but chafes it.
Under the Skin by Michael Hollinger . Directed by Vincent M. Lancisi . Featuring: Megan Anderson, Alice M. Gatling, Mitchell Hebert , Keith L. Royal Smith . Set Design: Brandon Mitchell . Lighting Design: Jay A. Herzog . Costume Design: Ivania Stack . Sound Design: Stowe Nelson . Dramaturg: Johanna Gruenhut. Stage Managers: Cat Wallis, Julie Debakey Smith.Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.