My New York trips are a sweet consolation prize. As a kid in a hostile corn-fed Iowa town, there were times that the only thing that kept me alive was the Arts section of the New York Times. The ads for the Broadway plays glittered in black and white and just the glimmer of a possibility that one day I’d appear on a Broadway stage made a gray Iowa school year bearable.
There are a multitude of reasons why a Broadway career eluded me, and large swaths of my life when even a seat in a Broadway theatre seemed as likely as a trip to the moon. I made my first brief trip in the late ‘80s, and then again, a decade later. But in the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to make semi-regular jaunts that have been like precious jewels to be hoarded, and in five visits I’ve managed to see twenty-three shows. The first of these visits left me breathless, dazzled by each and every performance. Prior to my most recent visit, a less starry-eyed view has given me a more nuanced appreciation for what I’ve seen. Rarely has a Broadway stage presented anything better than some of the productions I’ve seen in Chicago storefront theatres. They’ve only been better funded. I now know in my DNA that money does not create great art. It can only disguise mediocrity.
My last trip allowed only three trips to the theatre. One trip was to see Sweeney Todd, which is still in previews, so any kind of review at this time is inappropriate. The second was to see The Wanderers, a flawed script that I’m still digesting and may comment on later.
And Kimberly Akimbo.
My enthusiasm for musicals has dimmed over the years, even if my appreciation for them has not. As an actor, it was not the work I pursued although from time to time it seemed to pursue me. As a writer, I never thought I had the stamina it took to write one, much less the talent. I think of theatre going as a conversation, with my writings as my end of that conversation. It’s not so much that I don’t have anything to say to musicals so much as I simply don’t care for the language. Like German.
So, with all of that stipulated, let me just say that Kimberly Akimbo is everything that Dear Evan Hansen is not. It’s smart. And although necessarily stylized for the subject matter and the genre, deeply – I’d say profoundly – rooted in reality. It’s what theatre should be. It is true. And what I’m coming away with is that truth is in the details.
The costumes! Simple. Yet as a poor kid in a small town in Iowa, I wore those clothes.
Money plays a central role in these people’s lives, which it does when you don’t have it. But that lack is almost never depicted accurately. It’s not always the desperation of Javert, but more like a dull ache that throbs a bit more acutely from time to time, and for other brief moments is relieved by a tiny windfall. Yet even when there’s enough money for the moment, the memory of that acheful lack permeates a lifetime.
It is the detailed physicality that was the gut punch for me in this performance. In my acting days, I played many roles of adults-being-kids. Far too many. These roles are pocked with traps. I fell into them all, and maybe invented one or two new ones. The temptation is to become all elbows and knees. Vocally, the line readings become slightly discordant. A thirty-something actor playing a teenager seems to forget that the physicality of speech is mastered sometime around the age of four. Or at least I did.
Victoria Clark is a sixty-something actor playing a fifteen-year-old girl afflicted with an aging disease. She’s sixteen but looks seventy. As the performance began, I thought I recognized those traps. The lack of physical control, the pigeon-toed stance, the gestures originating from the elbow, the jutted jaw. I chose to overlook these clichés because the story was so strong, the dialogue brilliant and true. And then in the second act, when Kimberly makes an entrance disguised as an old grandmother, the physicality made sense and I realized that Victoria Clark wasn’t trading in same clichés I did. She presented truth. As a sixty-year old, I recognized the physical awkwardness of age, the deterioration, the reversals that we all try so desperately to hide. If we live long enough, we’re all likely to regress back to a toothless playpen and the diaper. Kimberly Akimbo shows us that with wit and heart. It helps us face this inevitability with a bit more strength and maybe a hint of courage. If you get the chance, you really should see this work of art. It’s amazing.