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Aisle View: The Doddering Old Lady and the Kama Sutra

04/21/2014 09:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2014

"Deliciously funny" says the swinging signboard hanging beneath the marquee of the Booth Theatre, proudly attributed to an unnamed critic from one of the most important newspapers in the universe. This quote was pulled, not quite accurately, from a review of The Velocity of Autumn during its tryout last October at the Arena Stage in Washington. Pity the casual theatergoer strolling along 45th Street who spots "deliciously funny" from down the block and thinks, "that's for me."

This is one of those "is the old lady losing her marbles?" plays, in which the doddering, aching, creaking, 79-year-old heroine drifts from witty perceptiveness to the borders of senility and back at the snap of the playwright's whim, all the while wondering "who is going to take care of my tree?" The best idea author Eric Coble and director Molly Smith have had is to get Estelle Parsons to play the role. Ms. Parsons is 86, by the calendar, but still has all her marbles and reservoirs of acting skill too. She needs them to get through the ins and outs of her character, a sweet old lady who's angry because her favorite son--the gay one, naturally--hasn't spoken to her in twenty years so she fills her Brooklyn brownstone and the stage of the Booth with homemade Molotov cocktails in liquor bottles.

Stephen Spinella plays the lost-soul-of-a-son, making his "deliciously funny" (?) entrance by climbing a tree. That tree, of fiery autumn orange, dominates Eugene Lee's set and the play and you might from time to time find your attention wandering from branch to branch.

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Have you ever seen one of those plays in which the author impressively holds your interest while his play lurches from scene to scene -- and between two disparate sets of characters -- in a manner which leaves you wondering what's it actually about, and in which he ends the first act with an arrestingly bravura scene that takes you so far astray that you think unless he is very good he has boxed himself into an utterly impossible corner?

The second act of Kirk Lynn's Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, at Playwrights Horizons, starts with a scene that alters the world of the play and brings those hard-to-connect plot & character strands into focus. Even while your mind tries to connect the proverbial dots, Mr. Lynn purposely keeps distracting you until he is ready to reveal his hand. His second act not only continues to engage us, it is packed with five or so riveting scenes.

In a day when many playwrights seem to write on and on for as long as they can think of words for their characters to say, Mr. Lynn -- who teaches writing and directing at the University of Texas at Austin -- has constructed his play into an edifice of well-wrought scenes that build upon each other. The effect is that of watching a watercolorist spill intriguing, separate areas across the canvas. Lynn's areas are well-defined, but it isn't until about two-thirds of the way through that he starts to fill in the connecting lines and shading, allowing us to see the picture that he has intended all along.

Director Anne Kauffman, who previously brought Detroit to Playwrights, extends that lack of information to the staging; the set, from Laura Jellinek, is a wide, carpeted, beige rectangle with three chandeliers and no clues as to what will fill it. Kauffman does an excellent job of keeping the world of the play clear but unclear, thus allowing Kirk's puzzle to retain maximum effect. She also does well by her actors, especially as they dig into those powerful second-act scenes. Chris Stack and Zoë Sophia Garcia play the central couple, Rebecca Henderson is the best friend, and Ismenia Mendes plays a teenager. All are strong, especially Ms. Henderson (who played the nurse/friend during the latter part of the run of another impressive Playwrights play, Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale).

Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra is good enough and strong enough that discerning playgoers will want to discover it themselves without any pre-show summary from me. Let us simply say that it is about secrets, trust, and communication. And let us say that Kirk Lynn is an intriguing, promising and wise playwright.

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The Velocity of Autumn, by Eric Coble, opened April 21, 2014 at the Booth Theatre
Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, by Kirk Lynn, opened April 21, 2014 at Playwrights Horizons

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