I (Heart) Kant
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 15, 2006
The Committee is presenting Ken Urban's play I (Heart) Kant in a production that feels pretty exemplary: it seems to realize his singular theatrical vision—which I've been following for nearly a decade now—quite resoundingly. Credit a strong cast, excellent production values, and a simpatico director, Dylan McCullough, who lets this funny/scary piece speak for itself on the stage.
I (Heart) Kant is about four women in New Jersey whose lives intertwine in mostly mundane ways (that they often aren't even aware of). From our perspective, their stories not only mesh but comment on one another, and on the central theme of the piece, set forth by the playwright both in the work's subtitle ("A Play About Happiness") and (by inference) in the title—Kant's philosophical writings include lengthy consideration of the "sublime" as a kind of exalted state of grace/being. Can these four characters ever get to it?
Linda, in her late 20s, is trying to finish her dissertation (about Kant, natch); she's stuck right now at a single sentence that took her six months to write. Betsy, a little older, is panicking about turning 30; she's so discombobulated that she slept with her brother. Pam, an office worker and Betsy's friend, a bit older still, is about to be killed in an explosion. Maureen, much younger, is addicted to drugs. Nobody's happy here, and their paths toward that elusive emotion seem fraught with poor choices and dire circumstance. Yet somehow the piece, like life, is neither depressing nor nihilistic; it's actually pretty funny, and occasionally wise, as when Maureen's boyfriend Joe says:
We do all this shit (He snorts heroin) so we don't have to do all this talking. Nothing messy, just junk and shows and friends and TV and sex and junk and shows. You empty yourself of everything, then everything just happens. You enjoy it and nothing breaks through.
Urban has structured the play, whose narratives jump around time and space rather wantonly, very formally. The main connection is "The Guy," an actor who plays various men in the four women's lives. He moves in and out of their lives, which are here represented smartly as cubicles in Lee Savage's mod and ingenious set. He's played by Steven Boyer in a tour de force performance in which he creates five fully-realized characters whose vibrancy stands in sharp contrast to the ladies' anomie. (Boyer achieves his transformations quickly, before our eyes, by adding or subtracting a telling accessory to his generic costume.)
The women are played by Kate Benson (Linda), Frances Mercanti-Anthony (Betsy), Edelen McWilliams (Pam), and Kate Downing (Maureen), all of whom deliver shrewd and memorable portrayals (and McWilliams's work is even better, really pinning down her character, who is the most mature of the women and therefore, surfaces notwithstanding, the most complex).
I (Heart) Kant is part of Urban's "Garden State Trilogy" of plays set in New Jersey and as such it feels not quite like a complete evening at just about an hour in length. But the potency of his theatrical vision and his insights into his own generation's particular angst make this a compelling drama nevertheless. I hope we'll get to see this one with its companion pieces soon.