UNDER THE SKIN (Arden): The boundaries of the body and the limits of love: It’s complicated

Note: Press opening for the Arden Theatre Company’s world premiere production of UNDER THE SKIN by Michael Hollinger was scheduled for January 21, 2015. When the lead actor, Craig Spidle, was unable to perform for health reasons, the Arden reached out to reviewers to postpone the opening. However, Phindie reviewer Kathryn Osenlund attended the January 25 matinee, with Spidle’s emergency replacement Douglas Rees in the role of Lou Ziegler. She wrote this review without notification that press opening had been delayed, and included a paragraph on the cast change. Rees’s adoption of the lead role has since been made permanent, but Phindie held this review until other publications were permitted to see it. 

Julianna Zinkel as Raina Lamott, Douglas Rees as Lou Ziegler, Biko Eisen-Martin as Jarrell Hayes, and Alice M. Gatling as Dr. Badu in Arden Theatre Company's production of Under the Skin. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce

Julianna Zinkel as Raina Lamott, Douglas Rees as Lou Ziegler, Biko Eisen-Martin as Jarrell Hayes, and Alice M. Gatling as Dr. Badu in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Under the Skin. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce

En route to the Arden Theatre via train and subway on a cold day, I wondered why I’d ever wanted to see an organ transplant play. I feared that this would be an ordeal. Then I remembered why I was interested:  It’s a Michael Hollinger play. UNDER THE SKIN is the seventh Hollinger World Premiere directed by Terrence J. Nolen and these premieres are not to be missed.

There’s little inherent humor in a guy needing a kidney, but evidently no one told that to Hollinger. He runs with it, devising an engrossing tale that touches on such sad issues as wrecked families. While the playwright respects the dire aspects of the patient’s situation, his character doesn’t wallow in self pity. It’s complicated. This is a pretty tough guy, the kind of man who sings his child to sleep with “Mack the Knife.” When his daughter waffles on the idea of donating a kidney, he quips,”You make Hamlet look decisive.”

Julianna Zinkel as Raina Lamott and Biko Eisen-Martin as Jarell Hayes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Julianna Zinkel as Raina Lamott and Biko Eisen-Martin as Jarell Hayes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The word heartwarming can denote easy, sentimental claptrap. But this play really is heartwarming. Hollinger lays down his plot like a weaver at a loom. I won’t spoil the surprises, but rather than constructing a generalized story and then working in characters’ views, Hollinger uses his highly developed sense of pacing and riposte to prioritize the characters as they bond, clash, and articulate or conceal their viewpoints and inner lives. Characters, not generalities, carry the ideas, angst, and laughs across to the audience.

Craig Spidle is listed in the program to play Lou Ziegler, the man who needs the kidney. I enjoyed Spidle’s work in Superior Donuts (Arden, 2011) and had hoped to see another of his performances. It was sad to learn that he had taken ill and would not be on stage. It’s a tough situation for the disappointed actor and for a cast accustomed to working with him throughout the rehearsal process. A new actor could have stalled the action. However, Douglas Rees got the call. Many will remember him from previous productions of Hollinger’s plays at the Arden: Opus, Ghost Writer, and An Empty Plate at the Cafe du Grand Boeuf. Although Rees is on book for a good part of the play, with his acting chops he inhales the script, and the audience and his fellow cast members can forget it’s in his hand.

Julianna Zinkel is Raina Lamott, the stressed out, almost constantly agitated daughter, her own tragic heroine who keeps a good and bad column checklist on her father, basically noting things he does or says that annoy her.  At the start when he comes to visit her, although she knows he drove 400 miles, she won’t even let him in the door. Julianna’s character also steps outside the frame to explain that this piece of theater is about “the boundaries of the body and the limits of love.”

Biko Eisen-Martin takes to his role as Jarrell Hayes with an attractive combination of laid-back and energetic, and he gives a good Latino lilt to his other character, a male nurse.

Alice M. Gatling, who is Jarrell’s mother, Marlene Hayes, also plays a doctor and a barista.  Gatling brings a truly powerful presence to all her roles, both light and serious.

The top-of-the-line design team creates a space that’s a hospital room and at the same time it’s any number of other places. In this open configuration, conversations can be sit-down and intimate, and they can cross space and time, sometimes simultaneously.

Terrence Nolen has pulled off another masterful directing job with UNDER THE SKIN, which earned a standing ovation at this performance. In theaters where everything rates a standing O, everything is fraudulent. But the Arden is not an automatic standing ovation kind of theater. [40 N. 2nd Street] January 15–March 15, 2015; ardentheatre.org.

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.