|Alexander Cook & Jennifer Coolidge in "Saving Kitty"|
(photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography)
A local theater near you has just pulled off quite a coup, with a starring role in its current production played by a star in her own right, local native Jennifer Coolidge. As noted elsewhere on this website, ask someone what their favorite Jennifer Coolidge role is and you're likely to have quite a few answers. While some might opt for the hilarious characters she played in Director Christopher Guest's films “A Mighty Wind” or “Best In Show”, others might choose one of her numerous appearances on several television series. This critic would vote for her beautiful creation of the manicurist Paulette (with more than a passing interest in the UPS deliveryman) in the “Legally Blonde” movies. Even with such varied comic roles already on her resumé, it might surprise some fans to hear that she's taken on a part that's a further challenge for this versatile actress, in a live theater production. The play is “Saving Kitty” by Marisa Smith, which Coolidge first did at a staged reading in Williamstown. The play received its world premiere at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre in 2012, and, from WHAT, it's now transitioning, with Coolidge, to none other than the Central Square Theater in Cambridge by the Nora Theatre Company.
One may now add another likely candidate for one's favorite Coolidge role. This play centers on an urbane and wealthy Manhattan matron, Kate Hartley (Coolidge). Living in a swank Fifth Avenue apartment, ostensibly ultra-liberal, she and her husband Huntley Hartley (Alexander Cook), a U.N. official, have become a rather bored couple, purportedly both agnostics. The impending arrival of a singular dinner guest, Paul Cook (Lewis D. Wheeler), the new beau of Kitty (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan), their television-journalist daughter, changes all their lives, especially that of Kate, whose unedited barbs are priceless. The couple speculates about this new boyfriend whom they are about to meet, as they reveal some hitherto unrevealed biases they share toward certain religious evangelicals, confusing them with the subset of fundamentalists and creationists. Certainly they're fair game for satire, and the playwright skillfully skewers them. Underlying the more obvious issue of religious prejudice, though, is the gradual, shrewd and unquestioned expectation that wives, implicitly and explicitly, should make their husbands the center of their universe. This is expressed through the focused Direction by Lee Mikeska Gardner, Artistic Director of the company (whose program notes, however, are disappointingly sexist), predominantly through Kate's frequent witticisms. Coolidge is more than capable of delivering her character's slings and arrows with superb deadpan timing, and Cook's long-suffering husband has a battery of fine facial expressions to counter her relentless forthrightness. The technical effects are all outstanding, from the gorgeous Scenic Design by Steven Royal (with clever subtle accents like the illuminated portrait of Kitty on one wall), to the effective Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski and Sound Design by Jennifer Timms, to the detailed Costume Design (down to a bejeweled hair clamp) by Barbara Douglass.
The production has some pacing issues, which with more performance time and a healthy dose of tightening will no doubt improve, and the ending doesn't sizzle but fizzles. The trip to Central Square is worthwhile, however, for all the quips that Coolidge lands (including a hilarious take on the “Second Coming” and her dismissal of her Biblical knowledge as her “great mind for trivia”), as well as those of Cook (at one point declaring that “life is a pause between two eternities”, and elsewhere that “life is war with intermissions”). There are also several mimed bits with an (uncredited) prop-changing “waiter” that are funny in themselves. Thanks to Smith's writing and Coolidge's acting,“Saving Kitty”, in the end, unquestionably redeems itself.