Uber-nerd Jeff McCracken likes to play word games. Take Kimberly Levaco, his high school classmate with a rare genetic disorder causing her to age prematurely. Scramble the letters of her name; rearrange them and you get "Cleverly Akimbo."
Jeff is the unlikely hero of David Lindsay-Abaire's 2001 play: a social outcast whose disregard for the superficial and interest in the heart of the matter offer an alternative to suffering and self-involvement.
In the Pear Avenue Theatre's production, directed by Caroline Clark, it's clear the real dysfunction is in the Levaco family -- not in Kimberly's cells. Gas-station employee Buddy (James Kopp) and pregnant Pattie (Gretta Stimson) hurl insults across the kitchen table of their Bogota (rhymes with pagoda), New Jersey, apartment. Wedged between them sits their teenage daughter Kimberly (Patricia Tyler).
Lindsay-Abaire wrote "Kimberly Akimbo" shortly before the birth of his first child, and the play has the feel of an extended prenatal anxiety dream -- a nightmare spun by a catastrophizing mind. A century after Oscar Wilde's cautionary tale "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's equally disturbing "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," this dark comedy offers a new angle on timelessly troubling questions: Does old age render us unlovable? What happens when the ordinary laws of aging and mortality no longer apply?
Subsisting on a diet of takeout, breakfast cereal and beer, the Levacos are too preoccupied with their own struggles to take much notice of Kimberly, their smart, sarcastic teenager who looks (and often acts) more like their mother than their daughter. Buddy ("I'm a good guy") is trying his best to care for Kim; sadly, his best consists of forgetting her 16th birthday and making up for it by stumbling home drunk at 3 a.m. with a half-squashed cake. Meanwhile, Pattie's hyperactive hypochondria has her convinced she's dying of cancer, and recent carpal-tunnel surgery has left her with two bandaged paws and a victim's attitude. She has to be spoon-fed and have her ass wiped -- visceral metaphors for a woman who has abandoned her adult responsibilities. Then there's Aunt Debra (Kristin Walter), the law-flouting drifter who pops up "like a bad rash" to draw Kim into her latest scheme.
In the midst of this emotional and domestic squalor, Jeff (Anthony Stephens in his debut appearance) is a balm: a dorky boy whose origins are no less grim than Kim's, but who sees her for who she is -- and likes her for it.
Under Clark's direction, the tension in the Levaco household hisses and pops like a downed power line, though at its climax (conveniently punctuated by Pattie's screaming contractions), all that coiled anger seems to fizzle out rather than ignite. Tyler tackles a tough role and conjures up moments of gut-wrenching pathos, particularly when she emerges in an "old woman" disguise yet with the body language of a teen: eyes rolled heavenward, knees hugging each other apologetically.
In addition to directing, Clark does the scenic design, offering up a cramped apartment with nauseatingly bold plaid wallpaper ("It's like you live in a giant thermos," sniffs Aunt Debra, who herself has spent the past 10 days camping out in the public library). Walter's Debra is all swaggering nervous energy and grandiose plans of escape -- a thin protective shell encasing her despair. And while Kim sees straight through the childishness of her adult role models, it's Jeff who offers actual alternatives: studying, Dungeons and Dragons and a visit to the safari park. Jeff's antidote to a dead-end life lies in playfulness, fantasy and the lesson of the anagram: Even one's very identity can be rearranged to form something new.
In a poignant scene halfway through the play, the Levacos gather in Kim's bedroom to celebrate her birthday, albeit belatedly and in their own dysfunctional way. It's an oasis of near-normal family warmth. Later, Buddy gets a moving monologue in which he addresses his unborn daughter, expressing not so much hopelessness as hapless disorientation -- how did it come to this?
The real wounds in this play have little to do with Kim's illness or her impending death; they come from the absence of healthy family bonds, and ultimately, from Pattie's rejection of her firstborn child whose unusual condition is too stark a reminder of her own mortality.
There's no question this is dark material, but zinging one-liners keep the dialogue zipping along, and though love may not exactly conquer all, like the headlights of the car that finally carries Kim and Jeff into the night, it banishes the darkness.
What: David Lindsay-Abaire's "Kimberly Akimbo"
Where: The Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Mountain View
When: Through Nov. 23, Thursday-Saturday, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, at 2 p.m.
Cost: Tickets range from $20-$30.
Info: Go to thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.