Saving Kitty

It’s sort of like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner but with a UN diplomat and his maddening wife instead of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and an evangelical Christian standing in for Sidney Poitier. The conceit being, as playwright Marisa Smith notes, that liberals can—amazingly—hold onto this one smug prejudice in our PC era; that it’s somehow ok to mock and malign a born-again.

If that makes Saving Kitty sound weighty, knotty, or dense, fear not. This is the lightest of summer fare with no message to impart, no issues to wrestle to the ground, no consciences to tweak. It’s filled with sitcom-style zingers, familiar familial conflicts (mother-daughter, husband-wife, girlfriend-boyfriend)—and some of the most scrumptious baked goods ever to grace a set.

The central conflict is mother Kate’s single-minded determination to break up daughter Kitty’s romance with Paul. She gives or indicates many reasons for this: Kitty’s burgeoning career, Kitty’s history of inappropriate and ill-starred boyfriends, Paul’s presumed narrow-mindedness, her own frustrations. Ultimately, though, she just seems to relish the role of mischief-maker. Judith Hawking pulls out all the stops as Kate flirts, flits, frets, finagles, flounces, and frightens her bemused family. She is a powerhouse, a termagant, alternatively silky and silly, as she utters such lines as “I don’t consider myself a liberal anymore. I’m a New Yorker.” And “My father was a Methodist, but it was more of a social thing.” And “Kitty never met a plant she couldn’t kill.” And, on tasting a vintage wine, “Hint of pencil lead.” Her extreme colorfulness threatens to eclipse the other, more moderate characters, but it’s a fun and lively performance.

Solid actor John FitzGibbon as Kitty’s father Huntley all too often has literal or metaphoric plugs in his ears as he converses on cell phones or listens to music, largely oblivious to the domestic conflicts swirling around him (one, revealed late in the play, of his own making). Huntley is gone to his office for large blocks of time to settle a crisis brewing in Turkey, appearing at intervals to bellow at his unruly womenfolk to settle down or to pour everyone another drink.

Christian Pedersen’s Paul is sensible, friendly, and good without being cloying or annoying. Sarah Nealis navigates the difficult role of Kitty gamely: Kitty is her mother’s daughter, and has strong currents of giddiness and rebelliousness coursing through her as a consequence. It’s a little hard to know how we are to see Kitty: is she a determined woman pitted against an impossible mother, or a flighty girl unfocused in her ambitions and desires? The playwright drops clues, but doesn’t ultimately enlighten us.

Saving Kitty fits with the season: a pleasant enough diversion after a hot day at the beach. And as presented by the sterling talents at New Jersey Rep, it is sleek and attractive. Kudos as always to designers Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, and Patricia E. Doherty for creating a beautiful and believable space and ambience—a stunning and bright New York apartment—through set, light, and costume, respectively. And director Evan Bergman smoothly moves us through the confection, aside from one clumsy conveyance at the end, when Hawking’s character walked through the apartment but was not in it, breaking an illusion of space and time that could have been resolved by a spot up at stage right.

I have to admit to not being as attuned to the humor as was the rest of the audience, but that, apparently, was my loss. The enthusiastic crowd laughed their way through the breezy, easy piece, and some of the comments I overheard as I left reminded me of the old adage “there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.”