Few plays are as tricky to stage as dramas about the elusiveness of human connection, especially across time and place. "Kin," a very interesting 2011 play by a British-born writer named Bathsheba Doran, is made up mostly of two-person scenes composed of people who do not fully understand the needs of each other, even as they wish they did. Our love lives and families are built and destroyed in such encounters, and the themes of this articulate drama range back and forward across the Atlantic as it explores the life and love of a Columbia University graduate student as this not-very-happy young woman is on the cusp of a relationship and an academic career.
Doran, who currently writes for television's"Boardwalk Empire,"is a well-educated, British-born scribe who now lives in New York. Any play delving into the angst of Ivy League graduate students with book contracts risks the danger of dwelling large on those whose problems do not exactly seem like the world's biggest concerns. "Kin" occasionally falls into that trap — you might wince when the play's protagonist Anna (Stacie Beth Green) gets upset that the reception for her new book on Keats is merely taking place in a lecture theater on the campus of Columbia University. "This is all I get?," she asks, miserably, as the professor with whom she slept drones on about her merits. Well, that ain't so bad. Ask an adjunct at a community college.
But not all such students are born to such a life. In the best moments of this play, in its Chicago premiere by Griffin Theatre under the direction of Jess McLeod, Doran offers a moving and well-understood critique of the alienation felt by young academics (especially in humanities departments) whose family members, and maybe lovers, not only can't understand post-modern literary analysis but don't give a hoot for its heroes. Such academics invariably wonder, as does the heroine here, whether writing esoteric books that few will read really counts for lifetime achievement. Would it not be better to date an Irish personal trainer, which is a choice that Anna makes? (Shane Kenyon plays the guy.) The scenes in Ireland, to whose shores the story of this couple and their friends and family sweeps, are poignantly written.
It's not easy for us to know who writes what on "Boardwalk Empire," but after seeing this play, I'd place a bet Doran was behind some of the lines of its several Irish characters, all trying to adjust to the new world, where even the air feels, as they like to say on that HBO show, "a bit off." One of Doran's best qualities as a writer is the way she can dramatize cultural alienation on the part of those trapped between lovers and lands, past and present, aspirations and realities, mistakes and recompenses.
One of the other big obstacles with "Kin" is that the play actually is structured more like a teleplay or a movie. Or so it feels here. It's not that McLeod didn't want to give the story a hefty dose of theatricality — Scott Davis' set has a simultaneous plethora of elements, from tables to tall grass, and the actress Susan Monts-Bologna offers a big-scaled performance as an Irishwoman who never overcame a trauma in her past. But although Monts-Bologna scales a table in service of the show (I'd rather she just felt real), McLeod hasn't come up with the kind of theatrical metaphor that fully pulls you through the play, as a play. Part of the issue is that Green's performance lacks both drive and vulnerability, two qualities that would help pull this slow-starting show together. Some of the scenes feel slightly over-played in a very heavy production of a play where emotional veracity is everything. And although bold choices certainly abound here on the stage of Theater Wit, a gentler mode of storytelling would suffice with this particular work. None of the characters in this production fully engage your empathy.
That said, "Kin" is not without interest. Its themes and ideas stick with you. And there are committed performances from the grounded likes of Ann Sonneville, who plays a struggling young actress named Helena and John Fenner Mays, who plays a wound-tight colonel floating around a familial world that military values cannot control. McLeod, a promising young director, threw herself into the play's structure and world; now she needs to cultivate a lighter, more counter-intuitive touch (there is more humor in the play than this production finds), and get all her performers to voyage far outside their comfort zones and back to each other.
When: Through June 10
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes