Empathy missing from `Kimberly Akimbo'

Tribune arts critic

When it comes to fragility and potential for disaster, few American playwrights rival David Lindsay-Abaire. In the wrong hands, sardonic little comedies like "Fuddy Meers" dissolve into tasteless caricature quicker than Alka-Seltzer. And a drug is an apt metaphor. Lindsay-Abaire has pursued a career-long obsession with comedy flowing from diseased characters.

In the case of "Kimberly Akimbo," a sweet-and-sour New York play that has been a nice little royalty earner for Lindsay-Abaire since 2001, the disease (or, more accurately, the genetic disorder) under comic review is progeria, which causes the titular character to age at 4 1/2 times the normal rate. And thus at A Red Orchid Theater in Old Town, you currently can see the veteran and distinguished Chicago actress Roslyn Alexander playing a character who is all of 16 years old.

The authorial intent is to surround Kimberly with a group of adults so dysfunctional that her unusual appearance is the most normal and reasonable elephant in the cupboard. So, herein, we get an alcoholic father (played by Matt Kozlowski), a mother both pregnant and alcoholic (Mierka Girten), and an aunt with a criminal penchant for money laundering (Jennifer Engstrom). All sit around the kitchen table, doing their silly things, messing with Kimberly's otherwise impeccable head, and generally behaving like dysfunctional characters in a contemporary black comedy.

Joining the post-menopausal teenager in her fight against a cruel world is Kimberly's classmate Jeff (the stellar Steve Haggard), a sweet nerd who likes anagrams and can see his way to kissing a woman who might be his grandma. And in that, the playwright says, we should all take hope.

Whatever. How funny you'll find all this depends on your penchant for black comedy and, frankly, your mood. Lindsay-Abaire has a lot in common with David Sedaris, the brilliantly self-destructive absurdist who can rock a theater with laughter and then kill a room by making some perversely indulgent misstep.

"Kimberly Akimbo" has some very funny lines. And Shade Murray's production is better than some -- mostly because he has cast the sardonic and talented likes of Kozlowski and Engstrom, who are willing to commit like crazy to the truth of their dumb characters. But the show moves too slowly in places, and it's only about half way there.

The main problem here is that we're never sure whether the game and sporting Alexander (who, in fairness, was suffering from a bum knee, it appeared, on opening night) is playing an actual 16-year-old who happens to look old, or an older woman who happens to be 16. That might sound like a thin distinction, but its lack of definition has a severe impact on this show.

All in all, Murray has the black comedy down cold (to his great credit), but the emotional core of the piece remains elusive. Empathy is not engaged. That's dangerous. We might start to wonder: Just what's so funny about progeria anyway?

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"Kimberly Akimbo"

When: Through Dec. 18

Where: A Red Orchid Theater, 1531 N. Wells St.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $14-$20 at 312-943-8722

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