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Indelicate Balance

Vagabond Players Can't Bring Both The Funny and The Serious to Current Production

YOUNG AT HEART: Dianne Hood and Alex Hayes go for a ride.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/30/2008

Kimberly Akimbo

By David Lindsay-Abaire

At the Vagabond Players through May 18

There are moments in the Vagabond Players' production of Kimberly Akimbo where you can glimpse the kind of quirky, touching comedy the show might have been. But those moments don't come often enough. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who enjoyed an off-Broadway hit with 1999's Fuddy Meers and who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Hole, specializes in dysfunctional blue-collar families who are tested by an unusual event. In Fuddy Meers it's a protagonist who wakes up every morning having forgotten everything about her life; in Rabbit Hole it's the death of a young child; in 2000's Kimberly Akimbo, it's a teenage protagonist who suffers from progeria, a real but rare disease that causes her to age four times faster than normal.

It's not easy to stage these plays. Akimbo is a zany comedy with a deep current of sadness beneath the surface, and it's difficult to get an entire cast to agree on the right balance of bathos and pathos and to sustain it for an entire evening. And it's a hurdle that director Steve Goldklang and his Vagabonds cast don't quite clear.

The Vagabond set consists of pale blue walls stenciled with white snowflakes to represent northern New Jersey's winter weather. Kimberly Levaco (Dianne Hood) is shivering on a bench outside an ice-skating rink when her father, Buddy (Larry Malkus), shows up two and a half hours late to pick her up. He claims he had car problems, but from the smell of his breath those problems must have involved beer.

These early scenes are purposefully disorienting, because Kimberly dresses like a teenager (pink parka, pink tennis shoes) and talks like a teenager (a piercing whine of "Da-a-a-ad!") but is played by Hood, who is obviously on the other side of 40. Only when she talks to her high-school friend Jeff do we finally learn about her progeria. The average life expectancy for those with the illness, she says, is 16. And today is her 16th birthday.

Not that her oblivious parents even notice. Buddy is a gas station attendant who tells his daughter, "I never imagined myself as a dad--I'm more of a bachelor uncle type." His wife, Pattie (Katharina Boser), can do little but sit in an aluminum chair all day. She's eight months pregnant and both her hands are swaddled in mittenlike bandages after surgery for carpal tunnel injuries sustained in a cupcake factory.

Kimberly is so tired of her parents' constant, profane bickering that she demands that they put a nickel in a jar every time they use a swear word. The jar is soon overflowing, but the childish arguments don't stop. Nor does their shrugging neglect.

The challenge in playing Kimberly is that an actress must not only project the body of a frail 54-year-old but also the personality of an insecure 16-year-old. She must be a teenage girl who's not only shy around boys but also the most mature person in her own family. That's many balls to keep in the air, and Hood keeps dropping them. She provides peeks at each side of her character--she is convincing when she squirms around Jeff or when she dresses up as a grandmother--but never reveals how those sides might coexist.

There's some humor to be had from Buddy and Pattie's arguments and unusual parenting, and from Kimberly's unlikely romance with Jeff (Alex Hayes), a Dungeons and Dragons geek, but the show doesn't really sputter to life until Pattie's sister Debra (Holly Pasciullo) takes the stage. She's so dysfunctional that she makes Buddy and Pattie look like parents of the year by comparison. Debra has been sleeping in the town library, a big step up from the crackhouse where she had been, because she knew Kimberly would show up in the reading room sooner or later.

As played by Pasciullo, a red-headed sparkplug in a secondhand New York Mets jersey, Debra emits a high-voltage charisma that jolts the show awake. Pasciullo makes it clear that Debra is completely nuts but also so self-confident that she can convince her sister and brother-in-law to let her sleep in the basement, even though she's dragging a stolen U.S. mailbox behind her. Then she convinces her niece and Jeff to help her pull off one of the most ill-conceived crimes imaginable.

The air should be crackling with tension in the near-final scene, as Pattie and Buddy are rushing off to the hospital to have their baby and as Debra and Kimberly are setting out to attempt their disastrously planned crime. But neither Buddy's alcoholism nor Kimberly's restlessness nor Jeff's infatuation have registered enough for us to care that much about what happens next. So instead of a catharsis, all we get from the show are a few chuckles.

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