Despite some small misfires, Going to See the Kid tells an amusing, heartfelt story with confidence and flair.
Going to See the Kid by Steven Drukman. Directed by Alexander Greenfield. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St. Lowell, MA, through December 24.
By Erik Nikander
The audience will initially be impressed by Going to See the Kid‘s remarkable set design. The scenery, crafted by designer John Sherwood, takes the form of larger-than-life strips of newsprint — clips of stories and section headings from the Boston Globe – stretched like giant glowing fingers around Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s compact stage. It’s unquestionably cool to look at, but I couldn’t help but wonder how this static environment would be adapted to the needs of the play.
Once the drama began these concerns melted away. The set that seemed to be immobile at the outset transformed with remarkable ease. The key is changes in the color of the lighting; the background suggests a blue-green highway vista, the seedy red of a sports bar, the soothing yellow glow of a fancy hotel, and too many others to remember offhand. A curtain, which at first seemed to be a backdrop, pulls away to reveal another lighted part of the scenery. The surprising mutability of the set matches how Going to See the Kid exceeds expectations. The production presents itself as a feel-good holiday show, and it is that, yet in many ways it goes a bit farther. This is a world premiere staging, so the evening exhibits the slight uncertainties and growing pains one might expect. Still, it is hard not to be won over by the versatile charm and warm character of the world crafted by writer Steven Drukman and director Alexander Greenfield.
Set in late 2001, the narrative revolves around Ellis, a young sportswriter for the Boston Globe and a devoted citizen of Red Sox Nation. She’s assigned an interview with retired Sox legend Ted Williams; she believes the piece might pave her way to a staff job with the newspaper. Not only would this promotion advance her career, but the benefits would help her get better health insurance for her father, who’s battling cancer. Of course, her hopes are dampened when she learns she’ll be sharing the piece with Simon, a legendary culture writer who doesn’t know the first thing about baseball. The two venture down to Williams’ Florida home with Ellis’ husband David in tow (they make their marriage work despite a severe impediment: David is, gasp, a Yankees fan!) and in the process discover that they might make a far better team than they realize.
Generally, the proceedings serve up light, goofy entertainment, but Going to See the Kid delivers a surprising amount of substance thanks to Drukman’s well-defined characters. Veronika Duerr’s Ellis manages to pull off a very tricky balance: the silly (her character’s almost-too-thick Boston accent, for instance) and the earnest. She worries that Simon won’t take her seriously, both as a woman trying to make it in the field of journalism and as someone with a lack of interest in the sort of “high culture” that Simon adores. Joel Colodner’s Simon is not all sparkling wit and intellect; there’s a vulnerability that makes the character more like Ellis than either of them realize at the beginning. Their journey to come together as people make up the glimmering center of the play, and it’s fun to experience the evolving relationship.
All the play’s characters have moments of humor, but it’s John Gregorio who is given the opportunity to flex his comedic muscles most often. Not only does he play Ellis’ husband David, but he takes on several other minor characters, from a crotchety Ted Williams and a dumb redneck at a bar to a massage therapist that Simon is implied to be … “close” to (this last figure draws on effete gay stereotypes, though not in a mean-spirited way). Not all of these characters land equally well but, despite the uneven writing, Gregorio is impressively chameleonic, always full of energy.
I mentioned uneven writing, and that is Going to See the Kid‘s major drawback. Some moments are amusing and well-drawn, but others fall somewhat flat. On the positive side, there’s a charming scene set to the Fenway Park favorite “Sweet Caroline.” On the negative, there’s a last-minute revelation about Simon’s background that doesn’t generate any dramatic benefits. Other dramaturgical decisions are more than a little puzzling; for instance, there’s an attempt to censor Ted Williams’s cantankerous profanity by translating it into Shakespearean poetry.
But these odd kinks are not serious enough to undercut a script that, for the most part, tells an amusing, heartfelt story with confidence and flair, frequently breaking the fourth wall in a way that’s both clever and engaging. The stumbles along the way are noticeable, but the excellent MRT cast and impressive staging sweep you up in the rollicking quest to meet Ted Williams.
Of course, New England audiences are going to get a lot out of Going to See the Kid. The play is infused with the mystical love of the Red Sox that those who don’t live around here will never understand. But, as Going to See the Kid suggests, it is an affection that it is impossible to forget (or shake) once you’ve experienced it for yourself.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.