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Monday, April 19, 2021

‘That Kindness’ is a tour de force of modern culture

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A new play about nurses, which performed for a handful of people at off-Broadway’s Valley View, is a piece that falls flat. It’s a tour de force of the hearts of women from all walks of life, or, more specifically, a tour de force of someone from none, an old prostitute (played by Dawn Ursula) who is simultaneously transfixing and creepy.

It’s set in 1852, when the hospital system was designed to educate nurses. Here at Valley View, two pregnant women are entering the hospital’s maternity ward. Marian (Amy Elisha McKenzie), who is still blinded by her future husband, Sebastian, a widower (Ken Doyle), meets Amelia (Ashley Goforth), who is carrying a child on her own and doesn’t want her husband, Titus (Andrew Reed), to know.

Marion is skeptical. “You think they’re going to have a baby, anyway?” she asks. Their dance moves — routine dancing comes naturally to her — are cute, but she’s also pretty annoyed. After all, nursing is supposed to be about motherhood, not pregnancy. We see her cross her arms in a semi-standing gyration to communicate her indecision, which I guess is supposed to convey machismo, if not outright animalism.

Later, Amelia is called upon to provide a urine sample for someone’s pregnancy. With chilling subtlety, Ursula portrays the patient — hiding behind a paper bag, a fat bag tied around her waist, and a gray suit — that her patient is testing to see if she is pregnant. “Which puts her in the majority of women’s lives in the 18th century,” Ursula says. A reason I prefer it this way to other “misogynist” statements of this type is that it’s as if Sebastian were suggesting that everyone else in his relationship is a bottom.

Her performance feels like it’s been thrust into a play by Lisa D’Amour, a writer whose style has been compared to Zoe Heller. It’s not unlike Matt Spicer’s “Invisible Children,” in which a character saves a boy. Uesnik Kruger did a lovely adaptation of Heller’s “Life” a while back.

As for their roles as parents, Lafayette’s Kelly Piotrowski isn’t given much to do. While never creepy, Ursula’s character is basically portrayed as the “best mother the world has ever seen,” with the sensibility of an amateur who took the time to compose a little song during the casting.

Reed and Piotrowski, both in love with one another, do find a way to connect, when their dynamic includes the fact that Lewis is pregnant with Sebastian’s child, and what comes after Sebastian dies of “madness.” Their bond is always magnetic. (During an intermission, they were dappled with light, or perhaps he and her were sneaking away in the dark.)

Kruger handles crowd scenes in a fluid fashion that’s neither flashy nor cinematic, if only because the characters are moving more fluidly than the action does.

As mentioned, Ursula is the woman whose moving pregnant walk is the most compelling part of the show. Set designer Jack Whelan gets the tone just right — a ragged modern industrial look with graffitied windows that’s as much like Alexandra West’s 1852 room (also at Valley View) as it is like what’s being observed by her character. While her character’s eye-rolly, put-down-tongue attitude might be perceived by some as misogynistic, to others it’s just pragmatic. Here she understands the market. These are brave times. In today’s nursing system, they’ll need strong, unwavering women.

“That Kindness” is at Valley View, 524 West 24th St., New York; closes Friday.

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