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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Saving Kitty

Thirty-five percent of Americans —possibly more— consider themselves evangelical Christians Mother.
— Kitty<

saving kitty
Sarah Nealis and Judith Hawking. (Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas)
Surely the guess-who's coming-to-dinner plot device is one of the more common and most conventional of dramatic cliches as it provides an easy hook for a conflict and an acceptable vehicle for a message. It usually involves an interracial, interfaith or cross-cultural romance seen in the light of either societal or parental disapproval, the possibilities have been endless ever since Jewish Abie fell in love with his Irish Rose. Brava to award-winning playwright Marisa Smith for coming up with a tartly comical twist on this theme with Saving Kitty.

Since well-heeled, middle-aged WASP married couple Huntley (John FitzGibbon) and Kate (Judith Hawking) are incorrigibly sophisticated, smugly erudite, blisteringly condescending New Yorkers living grandly in their "stately" upper Fifth Avenue apartment the politically progressive posturing that marks and defines them need not be considered an oxymoron. Huntley has some important job at the United Nations and Kate is a former actress/soap star, well-read, well-dressed, and more importantly, well-acquainted with the number of men with whom their attractive twenty-seven year-old, novice television producer daughter Kitty (Sarah Nealis) has been previously and frequently dis-engaged.

Despite being prepared for the usual inquisition, brave-hearted Kitty shocks her parents more than usual when she brings home for dinner Paul (Christian Pedersen), a born-again Evangelical missionary with whom she has been dating quietly for months. Kitty's reluctance to have the thirty-something Paul meet her parents may be because they are confirmed atheists with her father leaning generously toward the agnostic.

What drives the ensuing confrontation and the progressively caustic route toward a resolve is Kate's unapologetically acerbic wit. As played to the hilt of affectation and innuendo by a terrifically invasive Hawking, her role becomes the hilarious and often outrageous centerpiece in a comedy that can be savored line by line. Under Evan Bergman's incisive direction the play careens without a let-up from one critical but also laugh provoking juncture to the next.

Empowered by a relentlessly Mommy Dearest-invoked determination to put Paul through the ringer and to undermine his relationship with Kitty, Kate is clearly on a crusade, but certainly not one of a religious nature. With her politely accusatory baiting and barely veiled insults with regard to Paul's religious beliefs and his commitment to his work that includes being the principal of a an evangelical church, Trinity Bible School in New York City, she is unstoppable. But so is our laughter that accompanies Kate's tirade.

Kate's assault against Paul begins during the dinner party, picks up steam again during the middle of the night in a blissfully funny encounter that would make Noel Coward smile, and again the next morning. All of these, however, find Paul extraordinarily polite, tempted but unwilling to offend his future mother-in-law. While it is easy to be tickled by Kate's vicious attacks, witty but blistering opinions, we also begin to see her poignant, heartbreaking side.

The aspect that really elevates this play beyond its clever plot conceit is the dialogue, always trenchantly on target without being mean-spirited and despite its content. A subtext involves Huntley's concerns over an Islamic faction causing trouble in Turkey, but that is less relevant as Kate becomes acutely aware of a more devastating cause and effect of trouble in paradise. The living room setting by Jessica Parks may not presume paradise, but it does infer elegance as does Patricia E. Doherty's costumes particularly for Hawking.

With Hawking giving the kind of attention-demanding performance, it is remarkable how impressively the very pretty Nealis asserts the title character's charmingly rebellious nature into the squabbles. The commendably trim and good-looking Pederson remains ingratiatingly invincible, particularly in how he feels about pre-marital sex, an issue that adds another wrinkle to his relationship with Kitty.

Although this is the fourth play by Smith (it won Best Play in Portland Stages Clauder competition in 2010 and was work-shopped in New York with Harriet Harris), it is the first play by Smith that I have seen. This excellent play deserves a future life in regional theaters as well as in New York where a smart producer should take it forthwith.

Saving Kitty
By Marisa Smith
Directed by Evan Bergman

Cast: John FitzGibbon (Huntley), Judith Hawking (Kate), Sarah Nealis (Kitty), Christian Pedersen (Paul).
Scenic Design: Jessica Parks
Lighting Design: Jill Nagle
Costume Design: Patricia e. Doherty
Running time: 2 hours including intermission
New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey
(732) 229 - 3166
Tickets: $40.00
Performances: Thursdays, Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm.
From 07/25/13 Opened 07/27/13 Ends 08/25/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 07/27/13 .
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