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Thursday, November 15, 2018

King Kong (The Broadway Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

First off, it must be said that all you’ve heard about the remarkable attributes of the titular giant gorilla -- designed by Sonny Tilders -- are absolutely true. He’s amazingly lifelike, despite the visible puppeteers (King’s Men) controlling him, and the overhead cables providing added support and mobility. The face, operated by offstage computer wizardry, is extraordinarily expressive. All the visible manipulation (or most of it anyway) is forgotten once the action starts going, much as one came to ignore the handlers in the wondrous “War Horse” a few seasons back.

But, in all fairness to the creative team, there is more. For starters, Christiani Pitts, in the quite enormous role of Ann Darrow (the Fay Wray character), gives an impressive performance, and manages to make us believe she has a real bond with the creature. Coupled with all the dancing and singing (and she does have several demanding solos), the result is quite a tour de force. Her character’s career ambition and her empathy with Kong register as real and touching as she plays with such conviction. And she’s immensely likable.

The scenic and projection design by Peter England is immediately striking from the start. In the show’s opening moments, gritty New York period scenes and construction girders pull you right into the 1930s period. The same can be said for Roger Kirk’s costumes. Peter Mumford’s lighting is also first rate, and is astutely used to showcase Kong to maximum advantage and, when necessary, mask the obvious trickery behind the illusion. Peter Hylenski’s sound, including the fearsome roar before the creature’s first appearance, skillfully adds to the effect.

Marius de Vries’ score and Eddie Perfect’s songs have been dismissed by many as generic, and it is true they are mostly serviceable in the way of so many current musicals, and certainly -- apart from a couple of pastiche chorus girl numbers -- utterly devoid of Thirties flavor. But having had the opportunity to see the show first in an early preview, and then post-opening, afforded that rare chance to experience a new score twice, and I must confess I admired the music far more the second time around, without necessarily wanting to rush out and purchase a CD.

Jack Thorne, who co-authored the intelligent script for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” is dealing with a more simplistic tale here, but has done a more than creditable job, playing up the theme that both Kong and Ann are being victimized. And hats off to him for including reference to three actual musical theater ladies of the period: Mary Ellis, Vivienne Segal, and Adele Astaire. Still, apart from some other nods to Depression-era bread lines and some Hollywood name dropping like Clara Bow, the language is strictly contemporary.

In Thorne’s telling, Ann is a small-town farm gal who’s come to New York to make it big on Broadway, but rejection follows rejection, and thus when she and ruthless film director Carl Denham (Eric Williams Morris) “meet cute” in an eatery (he buys the starving young woman a sandwich), she’s willing to accompany him on a mysterious shoot in far-off Skull Island, and promises to make her a star. He does, however, expect her to act the damsel in distress, a role she simply can’t enact, in real life or on film.

Proudly and defiantly self-sufficient, like seemingly all female heroines these days, she never seems to need a man to protect her or rescue her. That’s just as well as Carl, in this version, is particularly repugnant and self-centered. So her leading man here is definitely meant to be Kong, underscoring the story’s “Beauty and the Beast” parallels.

The shipboard journey to Skull Island -- striking projections again -- lead to tensions with Carl and Captain Englehorn (Rory Donovan) which are only resolved by Ann’s resourcefulness. No sooner have they gotten to the island, and Ann is hanging from the foliage in mock distress, than we hear the resonant roar of Kong (Jon Hoche offstage).

Kong’s first appearance is teased by only a fleeting toothsome appearance, but when we finally get a gander at the whole of him, the effect is appropriately awesome. Kong scoops up Ann and brings her to his mountaintop hideout where they bond, especially after she’s tenderly treated the wounds he sustained in a battle with a giant serpent (not, alas, as convincingly constructed as Kong, but the audience seemed to like the sequence anyway). She soothes him with a sweet melody called “Full Moon Lullaby.”

I didn’t care much for the stylistic rendering of the forest with zig-zagging wires that seemed out of place with the realism of other locales.

Carl has a sweet-natured if socially awkward sidekick nicknamed Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) with whom Ann compassionately bonds. Lumpy once had a daughter and takes a paternal approach to Ann, and ultimately puts Carl in his place. “Everyone’s so desperate for success, they forget goodness.”

But Thorne does take a misstep in having Lumpy advise Ann that Carl needs a “kick in the balls.” A 1930’s man would never use language like that in front of a lady, just one of several anachronisms in the script.

Director Drew McOnie’s choreography, mostly used for NY hustle and bustle, is crisply executed by the ensemble, and indeed, is staging throughout is savvy.

The audience members around me responded very enthusiastically, so as popular entertainment, if not high art, this show very much succeeds. I sat next to rabid fan of the original film, and he was one of the first to leap to his feet during the curtain calls. Nearly all of Kong’s stunts elicited spontaneous applause throughout the show. “King Kong” is definitely a crowd-pleaser.
         
(The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street;  Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)
               
Photo by Joan Marcus: Christiani Pitts as “Ann Darrow” and “King Kong”

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Thanksgiving Play (Playwrights Horizons)


By Harry Forbes

Larissa FastHorse’s very amusing satire centers around the production of a Thanksgiving Day pageant for elementary school children. The four adult principals, who consider themselves extremely “woke” and sensitive, plot out the play -- which they are determined will not only celebrate the titular holiday but also pay homage to Native American Heritage Month -- and find themselves stumbling over multitudinous hurdles as they consider the actual genocide and violence behind the traditionally benign “coming together” harvest theme.

These include Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a drama teacher who has secured a succession of grants to finance the show, and her boyfriend Jaxton (Greg Keller), her rather dim street performer boyfriend, both proudly vegan; Caden (Jeffrey Bean), an elementary school history teacher who yearns to be a playwright, and though he has written 62 plays, has never had one performed by adults; and Alicia (very funny Margo Seibert), a self-absorbed LA actress hired for the occasion under the mistaken assumption, based on her head shot, that she has indigenous roots.

Logan stresses that the work will be “fully devised,” meaning that each actor will have input into the final product. As the four tortuously debate how they can cause least offence, they become increasingly stymied as to how they can progress at all. After all, they reason, how can any of these white actors have the temerity to speak for Native Americans?

Though the pretensions of these hyper sensitive folk are ripe for humor, FastHorse shows that the popular perception of the holiday does, in fact, cover a multitude of ills, and along the way, she has some perceptive things to say about how we learn history and the vagaries of the funding world, as for instance how some of the requirements for grants often shape what you actually see on stage.

Besides skewering political correctness and the like, she has plenty of insider jibes about theater, like an especially funny line about dramaturgs.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel (“Hand of God,” “Present Laughter”) paces the action for maximum comic effect, and draws sharp performances from his cast.

Wilson Chin’s schoolroom set is spot-on, and Tilly Grimes’ costumes, including those for the opening “Twelve Days of Thanksgiving” song with all four dressed in the conventional Pilgrims (and turkey) attire, add to to the fun.

The play -- originally produced by Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon -- runs about 90  minutes without intermission. It does at times seem like a protracted “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but the laughs, as indicated, are plentiful.

(Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street; 212-279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.com; through Dec. 2)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Greg Keller (Jaxton), Jennifer Bareilles (Logan), Jeffrey Bean (Caden), and Margo Seibert (Alicia)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Girl from the North Country (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

The unlikely mashup of songs from the Bob Dylan songbook with a script by great Irish playwright Conor McPherson has resulted in a perhaps not-totally-seamless, but on the whole, haunting and bewitching brew.

Premiering to acclaim last year at London’s Old Vic, “Girl from the North Country” concerns a boarding house on the verge of foreclosure in Duluth, Minnesota during the Depression. Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus) and his mentally fragile wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) have under their roof such diverse and sad characters as a lonely widow (Jeannette Bayardelle); an African-American prize fighter (Sydney James Harcourt) just out of jail after being wrongly incarcerated; a once successful businessman (Marc Kudisch), his world-weary wife (Luba Mason who doubles on drums) and childlike grown son (Todd Almond); and a shady reverend (David Pittu).

The Laines have an alcoholic son (Colton Ryan) who’s an aspiring writer, and an adopted African-American 19-year-old daughter (Kimber Sprawl), pregnant but refusing to reveal the father.

Other townspeople who weave in and out of the narrative include the local doctor (Robert Joy), once addicted to morphine, who occasionally narrates from the side of the stage; an elderly shoe mender (Tom Nelis); a widower whom Nick tries to match up with his daughter; and a young woman (Caitlin Houlahan) who was the childhood sweetheart of Nick’s troubled son.

Everyone’s dreams and aspirations seem doomed to failure, like Nick’s furtive romance with the widow. And there are some very dark elements such as sexual assault, violent racism, and even murder.

The songs from the Dylan songbook are presentational in style, and don’t necessarily match the details of the plot but rather comment on or elucidate the spoken parts from which they arise. There are about 20 in all written between 1963 and 2012. Nearly all the principals shine in their respective solo numbers, such as Winningham’s powerful “Like a Rolling Stone,” Harcourt’s “Hurricane”; and Mason’s “Tight Connection to My Heart,” to name a few. The ensemble numbers are especially winning like “Make You Feel My Love” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Some are done as if in a 1930s radio studio with the old-fashioned microphones. They are beautifully sung and gorgeously orchestrated by Music Supervisor Simon Hale.

The cast is superb across the board.

McPherson himself directs, and is obviously attuned to every nuance. Movement Director Lucy Hinds keeps the dialogue scenes and musical numbers fluid. Rae Smith’s set and costume designs are period perfect. And Mark Henderson’s lighting is skillfully evocative. Simon Baker’s sound design is a model of restraint and clarity.

Technically, “Girl from the North Country” may fall under the category of that much derided term “jukebox musical,” but whatever it is, it’s a work of uncommonly high artistic quality.

(The Public Theater, -- Lafayette Street; (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org; through December 23)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Todd Almond and the company of "Girl from the North Country"

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Waverly Gallery (Golden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This fine revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 memory play (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), which won acclaim for star Eileen Heckart, now features a superb performance by veteran Elaine May as the spirited grandmother, once a lawyer and social activist, gradually succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.

Though that precis on paper may sound like heavy going, the tone is, in fact, predominantly light-hearted. a bittersweet underpinning notwithstanding.

Gladys Green (May) is the owner of the titular Greenwich Village gallery which, we learn, has seen better days. The owner of the hotel in which the gallery is housed is poised to reclaim the space for conversion into a breakfast room. Now, as her condition worsens by degrees, she exasperates her family with her constant repetition, forgetfulness, and hearing difficulties, but their devotion is never in doubt. These include her loving but stretched-to-the-limit daughter Ellen (Joan Allen), son-in-law Howard (David Cromer) with a penchant for saying the wrong thing, and compassionate grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges), who also serves as narrator.

When Gladys is visited by Don, a sweet-natured if clueless Boston artist who’s been living in his car, she offers him a cot in the gallery, and allows him to mount his pictures there. (He’s played in nicely understated fashion by an almost unrecognizable Michael Cera in another memorable Lonergan portrayal after last season’s “Lobby Hero”)

The family, at first concerned that she has invited in a total stranger, comes to accept him, and they allow the arrangement. But as scene by scene, she declines (and May brilliantly delineates each stage of that decline), they worry how they’ll be able to take care of her. Daniel lives down the hall from her and her frequent ringing of his doorbell in her confusion is driving him the breaking point.

What makes the play so especially poignant is Gladys’ extraordinary likability, especially as embodied by the winning May. With her patently lovable nature, it’s easy to see why the family puts up with her. And it should be said that though May is only a year behind Gladys’ stated age of 87, she is totally on top of a role that must be especially tricky to learn with its constant repetition and overlapping dialogue.

Hedges is very appealing, and like Cera, has proven his chops with Lonergan dialogue (“Manchester By the Sea”). Allen skillfully conveys her devotion, even at the most trying times.

David Zinn’s beautiful scenic design including the Fine’s apartment, Gladys’, and, of course, the gallery itself, all finely detailed, and expertly lighted by Brian MacDevit. Ann Roth’s costumes capture the late 1980s/early 1990s perfectly. Projections by Tal Yarden between scenes atmospherically evoke an earlier New York.

Lonergan deftly mixes humor and sentiment in a most skillful way. The end is incredibly moving, and will affect anyone who’s experienced a similar situation with an aging parent. A young woman behind me could barely stifle her sobs.

Lila Neugebauer directs the delicate material with a sure hand and elicits well judged performances from her ensemble. But it’s May’s return to the stage that is the cause of greatest celebration, ironically at the very theater where she and her comedy partner Mike Nichols wowed everyone decades ago in “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through January 27)

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Ferryman (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Jez Butterworth’s gripping domestic drama from London, brilliantly acted by an ensemble cast, about a large family in Northern Ireland in the ominous shadow of the Irish Republican Army, circa early 1980s at the height of the Troubles, is everything friends who had seen it London raved about. (The play sold out in one day when it premiered at the Royal Court prior to its West End transfer.)

In the opening prologue, a priest named Horrigan (Charles Dale) has been summoned to meet with IRA kingpin Muldoon (Stuart Graham) about the grisly discovery in a peat bog of the body of one Seamus Carney who went missing a decade earlier, ostensibly a victim of the IRA. Muldoon wants Father Horrigan not only to inform the dead man’s family, but also, as we later learn, to ask their silence.

The next scene brings us to the bustling farm household of Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), brother of the deceased Seamus, Quinn’s pale wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), and their seven children (including, rather remarkably, an actual baby). There’s also his wheelchair bound Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan), so called because she sits in her own silent reverie but occasionally breaks her silence with tales from the past and auguries of the future, stern Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy), a staunch anti-British Republican transfixed by her radio and what she views as the latest hateful pronouncements from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and gregarious classics-quoting Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert). It is he who explains the allusion to “ferryman” of the title. It is Virgil’s Charon who plied his trade on the River Styx.

The aunts are especially memorable. Flanagan’s long recitation about a lost love intertwined with fanciful tales of fairies and banshees is as mesmerizing for the audience as it is for the children who eagerly soak up these stories, and their sometimes gruesome details, at her feet. Similarly, Aunt Pat’s fiercely related story of another loss during the Easter Rising is equally compelling.

There’s also Seamus’ wife Caitlin (superb Laura Donnelly) who cooks the meals in the household and, in all but name, serves as mother, as Mary mostly keeps to her room, felled by what she says are various viruses. It soon becomes evident that there is some sort of romantic bond between Caitlin and Quinn. Caitlin has a teenage son Oisin (Rob Malone), a furtive, angry lad constantly spying on others’ conversations, mirroring the play’s theme of the sinister intertwining of the personal and the political.

Adding to the youthful energy are visiting Corcoran cousins, including a boastful punk Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney) who has succumbed to the glamour of the IRA. In a finely acted scene, his brother Declan (Michael Quinton McArthur) taunts him for his loose-lipped indiscretion, followed shortly by an articulate warning along similar lines from eldest Carney son Michael (Fra Fee), the most morally upright of the Carney brood.


The acting is powerful throughout. Considine exudes quiet power as Quinn who had been an IRA member years earlier but now wants nothing to do with them. Justin Edwards is brilliant as Tom Kettle, a slow-witted displaced Englishman who has lived on the property since childhood, a tangible symbol of the British occupation. His recitation of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Silent Lover” is a dramatic highpoint. Graham’s deadly calm and confident persona as Muldoon makes him all the more fearsome.

And it should be mentioned that besides the extraordinary aforementioned baby, there’s also the unusual appearance of a live goose and rabbit.

As the program note informs us, “For five months, Republican inmates in the Maze Prison have been on hunger strike to demand they be recognized as political prisoners,” and Thatcher refuses to do so. When the play opens, five have already died including Bobby Sands. This is the situation the IRA hopes to use for sympathy and support.

The family’s raucous celebration of the close of harvest day will be ended by surprise guests including Muldoon which propel the rest of the absorbing action. Much of the pleasure of Butterworth’s epic play is putting together the pieces of the plot as they are revealed, so I shan’t say more.

Butterworth’s play is at times reminiscent of those of Martin McDonagh, not to mention, the classic playwrights such as Synge and O’Casey, but his voice is brilliantly his own. At times, it’s difficult to sort out who’s who among the large family, but that’s part of his canny storytelling technique.

Sam Mendes directs with a brilliant ear for the ominous undertone beneath the cheerfully rambunctious family activities. The brilliant cast truly inhabit their roles, and every action feels truly organic. The older children are realistically boisterous, the younger ones nonchalantly vulgar and fascinated, as children can be, by violence.

Rob Howell has designed an amazingly realistic farm house which puts us right in the action, atmospherically lighted by Peter Mumford. Nick Powell’s evocative sound design and music are furthur plusses.

The play is about three and one half hours long, but you won’t be bored. It’s the sort of play that generates cheers and bravos at the end, and deserves every one of them.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Photos by Joan Marcus (top to bottom):

(L-R): Laura Donnelly (Caitlin Carney), Genevieve O’Reilly (Mary Carney), Sean Frank Coffey (Bobby Carney), and Paddy Considine (Quinn Carney)

Paddy Considine (Quinn Carney – center, standing) and the company of The Ferryman

Monday, October 29, 2018

Orange Blossoms (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIve!)


By Harry Forbes

Four years after Light Opera of New York exhumed Victor Herbert’s last operetta (more accurately, a “comedy with songs,” and those numbers more in a musical comedy vein), here comes another, this time courtesy of Victor Herbert Renaissance Project.

The LOONY production had utilized a nine-piece orchestra, and resulted in a very nice, albeit dialogue-heavy, recording from Albany Records. For her VHRP production, Artistic Director Alyce Mott wisely adhered much more closely to the original book by frequent Herbert collaborator Fred de Gresac (Mrs. Victor Maurel) (“The Red Mill,” The Enchantress,” and “Sweethearts”). It was based on her popular French play “La Passerelle” (co-written with Fran├žois de Croisset), and later adapted for London and Broadway as “The Marriage of Kitty.” Interestingly, Gresac’s collaborator on the book and lyrics was Tin Pan Alley’s B.G. “Buddy” de Sylva.

Mott assembled an exceptionally strong cast, one of VHRP’s best yet, under the customary expert musical direction of Michael Thomas (with Herbert virtuoso William Hicks on piano).

Emphasizing the play with music structure, there was, in fact, noticeably a greater dialogue to music ratio than usual in a Herbert piece, and no overture. The plot concerns wealthy Baron Roger Belmont (Bray Wilkins) who is advised to enter into a temporary sham marriage with Kitty (Joanie Brittingham), goddaughter of his friend and lawyer Brassac (David Seatter) in order to evade the conditions of his aunt’s will,  which were intended to block his liaison with a glamorous divorcee Helene de Vasquez (Sarah Caldwell Smith). At the nuptials, Kitty is in disguise, but months later, when Belmont finally gets to know her, he discovers he loves her.

Providing comic relief (and some razzmatazz tunes) are the secondary comic couple, Brassac’s secretary Tillie (played to gum-chewing New Yawk perfection by Alexa Devlin), and private detective-in-disguise Jimmy Flynn (Drew Bolander).

When Kitty is set up in Cannes for her solitary year as a “married” woman, we meet her ladies maid Ninetta (vocally strong JoAnna Geffert) and butler Auguste (Jonathan Fox Powers), both excellent.

Adding color to the proceedings are Brassac’s gold-digging divorcee clients (Jenny Lindsey, Alexa Clint, Geffert (again), Elisabeth Slaten, and Susan Case, and the various men in their lives (Colm Fitzmaurice, Quintin Harris, and Keith Broughton) who blend beautifully on the droll “Let’s Not Get Married” and other concerted numbers.


The songs are, as usual with Herbert, a superior lot. This is the show from which his evergreen “A Kiss in the Dark” derives, but there are many gems, all well sung by the company. For all its charm and excellence, “Orange Blossoms” was not a hit in its day, despite what appears to have been an ultra-deluxe production and generally appreciative reviews, so “Kiss Me Again” gained more of a foothold with the public after its inclusion in an edition of the Ziegfeld Follies soon after.

Brittingham, a VHRP regular, had her best role with the company yet, and delivered that timeless number with pure tone and sensitivity, as she did her second act ballad, “The Lonely Nest.” I was sorry not to hear her do Kitty’s sprightly (if arguably extraneous) “Glow Worm” song, the evening’s only excised number, besides the “Moonshine and Mosquito” ballet. Furthermore, she demonstrated her considerable comic chops in her jaunty ditty “In Hennequeville,” and paired beautifully with strong-voiced Wilkins when he wasn’t dueting with his intended Helene (well played and sung by VHRP regular Smith). Wilkins also had the Laurence Harvey-like good looks and requisite aristocratic manner for his upper crust role.

Devlin and Bollander delivered their lively comic duets, “New York Is the Same Old Place” and “Way Out West in Jersey” with clarion tone and requisite panache, and Bollander his self-aggrandizing “J.J. Flynn” with vaudevillian brio.


Veteran baritone Seatter, in particular, had the lion’s share of expository dialogue but delivered it expertly, and sang incisively in the ensemble numbers allotted to him, like the delightful quartet “I Can’t Argue With You” (with Smith, Wilkins, and Clint). The spoken parts were, on the whole, quite capably handled by the cast.

Mott’s sensible direction was enhanced by choreographer Emily Cornelius, absent from VHRP’s last productions, to provide some nifty steps for the Act 2 opener, “On the Riviera,” and the title number for Kitty and her admirers, though opportunities were more limited overall given the nature of the piece.

In addition to the LOONY recording mentioned above, there’s a good recording of the complete score in the Comic Opera Guild series, albeit with four-hand piano accompaniment.

Next up, enticingly,  is an evening of Herbert love songs (February 26 and 27), and then “Sweethearts” (April 30 and May 1), the latter to be accompanied by the New Victor Herbert Orchestra.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.; www.vhrplive.org; October 23 and 24 only)

Photos by Jill LaVine:

(Top to bottom)

L-R:    David Seatter, Bray Wilkins, Joanie Brittingham, JoAnna Geffert, Jonathan Fox Powers

L-R:      Jenny Lindsey, Colm Fitzmaurice, Alexa Clint, Keith Broughton, Sue Case, Quintin Harris, Elisabeth Slaten

L-R:     Alexa Devlin, Drew Bolander

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Apologia (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

Stockard Channing has returned to New York in the play that brought her deserved acclaim in London’s West End. In Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “Apologia,” she plays an American expatriate living in England. An art historian, her character Kristin Miller was once a 1960s activist. Now her grown sons return home to celebrate her birthday, but also to castigate her for abandoning them as children.

The catalyst for this unleashing of years of pent-up resentment is her recently published memoir in which neither son is even mentioned, an omission which would seem to confirm her lack of even a modicum of maternal concern.

When son Peter enters in the first act with, of all things, an American evangelical girlfriend named Trudi, Kristin fairly bristles with sarcasm and criticism. (Kristin has brought them up to believe religion is “patriarchal propaganda”), and is less than gracious when overly-eager-to-please Trudi presents her with the gift of an African mask which she and Peter picked up on recent trip to Botswana.

Later, over dinner, by which time they are joined by other son Simon’s soap opera actress girlfriend Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Kristin’s longtime gay friend Hugh (director John Tillinger in a rare return to acting), tensions boil over. Then when her disturbed son Simon arrives in the middle of the night, having just injured himself in a fall, he lets Kristin know his own feelings, while she nurses his wounds.

Hugh Dancy plays both brothers, as they are never on stage together, skillfully differentiating each, and conveying the emotional scars Kristin’s absenteeism left on both of them. As intimidating as Kristin can be, Talene Monahon shows Trudi to be fearlessly bold in stating her own convictions however naive, and continuing to praise Kristin with all sincerity despite the latter’s relentless disparagement. Echikunwoke nails Claire, whom Kristin derides as self-centered and egotistical. And Tillinger delivers his droll interjections over dinner and after with masterful timing.

The play would seem to pit Kristin’s past activism against her role as mother, but in its essentials, it’s the old story of a parent failing at balancing any career and parental duties. But Campbell’s dialogue is lively -- and Channing delivers her brittle retorts masterfully -- with intriguing revelations along the way. Campbell eventually shows these characters to be not what they seem, while Daniel Aukin orchestrates all the familial dysfunction perfectly.

Dane Laffrey’s book-dominated cottage, lit by Bradley King, seems just right for the intellectual Kristin. And Anita Yavich has designed perfect character-defining outfits.

Oh, and about that title, if you were wondering, Kristin defines it at one point. “It means a formal, written defense of one’s opinions or conduct...not to be confused with an apology.” And as you might infer from the above plot outline, Kristin does indeed have some "'splaining to do," as Ricky Ricardo might have said.

(Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street; 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org; through December 16)