by Hugh Hunter
In her opening remarks, Colleen Bracken confesses to “feeling pummeled by repeated reports of the divisions and difficulties in our country.” But she takes heart in directing Michael Hollinger’s off-beat Under the Skin (2015) at Drama Group, and in its message that “…like it or not, we are all connected under the skin.”
The opening scene grabs your attention. Elderly Lou stands submissively in the doorway of daughter Raina’s house. From their halting dialogue it is clear they have long been estranged. But this does not deter Lou from asking an angry Raina to donate a kidney as he is dying from end stage renal failure — quite an endearing way to renew a relationship!
Bracken’s set is disconcerting. A full-size hospital bed dominates center stage, complete with tubes and saline drip, a spectral image that overshadows all other props. Will Lou survive to receive a kidney? The stage design helps in maintaining focus, and the central dramatic question endures to the whacky finale.
Ed Marcinkiewicz is superb as aging father, Lou, sometimes irritated, often nonplussed. Though he cannot remember the name of his granddaughter, Lou remembers conversations and has a zany talent for repeating what he has been told in altered situations for ironic effect.
Jennifer Shorstein is equally humorous as Raina, full of brisk, sudden movements and rapid speech. Raina’s life is a grab bag of desperate measures. A single mom, she tries to cope with a young daughter and sexual frustrations with yoga studies. (She also has a phone App where a bell goes off to remind her it is time for a mindfulness moment.)
At first, you are on Raina’s side; you understand her anger over the lifelong neglect of her father. But their relationship is not what it seems. These two do not see how their lives are tragicomically entangled, and the play is full of ludicrous plot twists you never see coming.
They are not alone in their blindness. At the hospital, Raina runs into Jarrell (Charvez Grant), who is in the process of donating his kidney to a lifelong mentor. As their relationship matures, Raina meets his mother, Marlene (Melody Jai). By fits and starts, all these folks learn that they are related and not related in ways they never suspected.
The script is original and daring. (Michael Hollinger is a theater professor at Villanova who previously lived in Mt. Airy and now lives in Wyncote.) There is no slapstick, no sidesplitting humor and few bon mots. But the actors fully inhabit their roles, and the stream of events, unpredictable and sadly amusing, keeps you silently laughing.
It is hard for a comedy to deliver on the message of a universal man without becoming mawkish. But the disclosures and consequences in “Under the Skin” are so comically ironic an odd vision of a shared human inheritance does rise to the surface.
Drama Group is located at 6001 Germantown Ave., at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. “Under the Skin” will run through Nov 24. Tickets available at the door.