It is really tough to be smart and silly at the same time, but Lisa Kron magnificently succeeds. Her comedy "Well," now making its Boston debut at the Huntington Theatre Company, has moments goofy enough to make your sides ache -- and other moments intelligent enough to rearrange your understanding of the world.
"Well" comes to Boston fresh from Broadway, where performance artist Lisa Kron earned a best-actress Tony nomination in the role of "Lisa Kron," whom playwright Lisa Kron describes in the script as a "New York performance artist writing a play NOT about herself." Is that meta enough for you?
The wonderful news, though, is that unlike too many metatheatrical attempts to use performance to comment on itself, "Well" deploys its self-references, self-interruptions, and self-transformations with wisdom and grace. Kron the playwright, Kron the actress, and Kron the character all make delightful company, self-aware but never self-absorbed. So the play, while it's clearly autobiographical, is also clearly about more universal questions: what it means to be sick, what it means to be well, what families do to and for each other, and how sometimes in spite of ourselves we find a way to heal.
But this is all sounding way too heavy, and one of the play's many joys is that it carries its messages lightly. It begins simply enough, with Kron's mother (or, more accurately, "Kron's" "mother") dozing in a cluttered living room at stage left. The living room seems to have been plopped on a bare stage like Dorothy's house in Oz, with Mom transported in her
The other side of the stage is bare, for now, with rigging and lights revealed. Kron walks out, thanks us for coming, and starts to explain what she'll be doing tonight. Her tone is so relaxed, so conversational, that you're not quite sure at first whether this is a pre-show chat from the playwright or the actress starting the show.
That's just the right taste of what's to come: a freewheeling, fourth-wall-breaking, convention-bending piece of theater that reminds us just how profoundly playful a play can be. No sooner has Lisa introduced the work as a "theatrical exploration" of universal issues through specific scenes drawn from life than her mother, Ann, starts interrupting with her own anecdotes, corrections, and versions of Lisa's childhood in Lansing, Mich.
Thus a scene of the integrated neighborhood association that Ann Kron founded provokes her to exclaim that Lisa has condensed the family history way too much; a hilarious sendup of the allergy unit where Lisa was an inpatient inspires Mom, who blames allergies for all her chronic ailments, to uncork a critique of Lisa's one-sidedness. Tension builds between mother and daughter and, soon, between Lisa and the other actors who are portraying characters from neighborhood and clinic.
Ann, you see, is much more appealing to them. They want to hear her side of things. They want to help her get well.
Increasingly distraught, Lisa weaves her hands together to show us how everything, ultimately, will come together to form a cohesive story. Meanwhile, the play veers more and more off track; the scenery starts to fall apart; the actors get increasingly confused. And that, brilliantly, is what makes it all come together into a stunningly cohesive whole.
It takes smarts and skills to pull this kind of thing off, and Kron has them in abundance. So does her director, Leigh Silverman, and so do the marvelously versatile and persuasive actors with whom she shares the stage. Veteran character actor Mary Pat Gleason, in particular, takes the infinitely complicated character of Ann -- so sick, yet so well; so strong, yet so weak -- and weaves her contradictions into an endlessly fascinating human being.
By the end of the night, we've come to understand why she sometimes drives Lisa crazy. But, like the other actors, we've also fallen in love with her. The lasting achievement of "Well," even more than its great wit and good heart, is that it leaves us with a deeper understanding of how all of us, one way or another, can do that. We drive each other crazy, but still, somehow, we manage to find love.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.