Did you attend a family reunion this summer? If so, it probably hit you (again) that families are often weird and freakish gatherings of people who, absent their shared gene pool, would never find any reason to associate with each other. That said, it's important to realize that those people aren't trying to be odd; they're actually attempting to be normal, but their efforts just come out wildly skewed. In Kimberly Akimbo at Dobama Theatre, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has created an all-star family lineup of misfits and morons. But because he and director Walter Eugene Grodzik have chosen to play everything for laughs (and there are plenty of easy ones), we lose track of the real humanity that should hide just below the surface of the characters' impulses and eccentricities. As a result, the hilarity dissipates quickly and leaves a void, where there could have been much deeper resonance.
Living in a small, rundown community in present-day New Jersey, the frantic family in question centers around Kimberly, a 16-year-old girl whose body is aging at four and a half times the normal rate, due to a rare genetic condition. As a result, Kim is inhabiting the body of a seventyish woman, while she's dealing with all the usual torments of being a teenager going to public school. As if that isn't enough of a challenge, she's also saddled with a foul-mouthed, hypochondriac, pregnant mother, Pattie, whose hands are bandaged and useless, thanks to the carpal tunnel syndrome she acquired while employed to squirt cream filling into an endless stream of Ding-Dong-like pastries. The family also includes Kimberly's father, the spineless and continually drunk Buddy (played with blue-collar gruffness by John Kolibab) and homeless Aunt Debra, who's recently out of the slammer and looking for a new scam. The fifth cast member is Jeff, a dorky classmate of Kimberly's who's addicted to Dungeons & Dragons and anagrams, and who's using her disease as the basis of a class project.
Lindsay-Abaire often frolics in the world of dysfunctional neurotics and provides a wealth of comedic opportunities, including Pattie's obsessive videotaping of herself giving advice to her future child (Pattie thinks she's dying of cancer). There are also some cute lines: When Buddy cautions Kimberly about what might happen on a date with Jeff, she responds, "What are you worrying about, Dad? I went through menopause four years ago!" But the flaws in the script add up faster than the yucks. Many of Kimberly's lines do not ring true for a teenager, especially when she declares she wants to visit Hawaii to see Don Ho. Yeah, "Tiny Bubbles" is getting monster play on MTV these days. Also, there are a couple of dead-end subplots involving the murder of the man who supposedly fathered Pattie's fetus, along with Debra's hugely unlikely check-washing scheme, in which Kimberly pretends to be Jeff's grandmother so she can cash the bad paper at the local bank (as if a child afflicted with such an unusual disease wouldn't be immediately recognizable in such a small town). But beyond the absurd situations, there are larger observations begging to be made about the ephemeral nature of life -- aren't we all aging way too fast? -- and the need to connect while we're still kicking it on earth.
Unfortunately, director Grodzik joins the playwright and sails glibly over these depths, leaving his gifted cast carelessly strewn about, as far as their characterizations are concerned. The fine actress Paula Duesing dourly underplays Kimberly, only occasionally capturing the essence of a teenage girl encased in an oldster's skin. This drains the impact from the scene in the second act when Kimberly appears dressed in a style befitting her apparent age. Meanwhile, Tracey Field rips every shred of subtlety from mom Pattie, displaying her considerable acting skills in a high-decibel, way-over-the-top performance. In a similar vein, talented young Sean Fitzgerald's Jeff is a nonstop whirligig of mannerisms and affectations. Sure the kid's hyperactive, but he's supposed to be on Ritalin; if he is, they need to triple the dose. Only Joan Fuglewicz as the scheming, bigger-than-life Debra comes close to hitting the right balance between cartoonish and genuine. At one point, she pats Jeff on the head and offhandedly compliments him, "You're a good kid. You wanna handjob?"
Instead of playing against the rampant wackiness of the characters, thereby conjuring a more nuanced and ultimately more humorous portrayal of these oddballs, this production surrenders completely to every gag and delivers them all at full volume. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that, by allowing Kimberly and Jeff's early moments to be dominated by cheap laughs, the final scene in the play is undermined -- a tender juncture that, sadly, plays like an unfocused afterthought.