All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Under the Skin — Arden Theatre

untitled (20)Lou Ziegler needs a kidney transplant.

He’s on dialysis but the more threatening problem is the shunt, or portal, in his chest, by which Lou is cleansed, gets continually infected and may one day affect his blood.

Lou is not without resources for donors. He has a daughter, Raina, from whom he is estranged over matters deriving from her late mother, but who is curious enough to find out what Lou wants as she refuses him entrance to her home on Christmas Eve after he has driven 400 miles from Philadelphia to Ohio, present for his granddaughter in hand, to get there.

He also has friends who will agree to be tested for renal compatibility. Lou may not be aces as a Dad, but he scores highly in the community at large. He has given special guidance to a young man who is eager to come to his rescue in his medical pinch. If his tissue proves to be a match for Lou’s.

“Under the Skin,” Michael Hollinger’s world premiere play at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre, has some obvious ground it can cover given the plot facts you now know.

Daughter and father will wage some level of war about filial obligation and childhood disappointment. Lou might find refuge in the young person who has affectionate regard for him. A third route, obtaining a kidney via national organ donation banks can be pursued. (Oh, what a good boy am I! I have “Organ Donor” stamped on my driver’s license.) Lou and Raina can reach a rapprochement. Lots can happen.

And lots does. The incurable dramatic malaise in “Under the Skin” is the myriad plot threads that seem obvious remain obvious. So much so, there’s no fire, no real controversy or import in Hollinger’s piece. It doesn’t even provoke deep thought. Perhaps a fleeting “What would you/I do if you/I were Raina?” But nothing that cuts deep and gets to the critical viscera of urgent need vs. vindictive withholding or the complexities of parent-child relationships “Under the Skin” seeks to expose. (See “Misalliance” for the parent-child dilemma.)

The arguments Hollinger gives his characters are articulate and well-written, but they are word-for-word exactly what you’d expect to hear. No plea or recrimination has the slightest freshness or semblance of originality. Assigned an exercise to compose a possible conversation between a reluctant, resentful daughter and a glib and needy father, just about anyone would come up with dialogue Hollinger provides.

It’s comme il faut. There’s no surprise. No tension. Only the obvious and predictable. And the unengaging.

The formulaic nature of the arguments and discussions provide no weight. They are as sterile as the hospital room that Lou occupies for large sections of the play. You keep waiting for some bite, for someone to make a case you couldn’t have imagined on your own, but nothing comes. Only trite parrying that robs even Lou’s literal life-and-death situation of any poignancy or pity. The bickering is so banally presumable, you’re not even moved to take sides, to say, “Come on, Raina, where’s your compassion? Help out your Dad!” or “Lou, you are such a jerk and such a bad family man, no one would offer you a skin graft let alone a kidney!”

The byplay between Lou and Raina is too bland for a real competition between them to come to an absorbingly dramatic head. Besides, Hollinger seems so intent to give them both solid debating points, neither seems a hero or a villain. The traits Hollinger gives his characters don’t foreshadow a standoff. They predict a conciliatory niceness that pervades “Under the Skin” and makes what is supposed to be a kind and generous ending into a series of “Oh, brother!” moments. Literally and sardonically. You look for heft in Hollinger’s play, and all you find is treacle.

Hollinger has put no teeth in his play. Neither Raina nor Lou is mean enough or selfish enough to hate. And, then, there’s a volunteer heading the rescue, so even an impasse doesn’t mean Lou will have to die before he finds someone to give him a kidney.

Terrence J. Nolen’s production of “Under the Skin” is bright, and its cast does a fine job, but Hollinger’s material rarely rises above the level of mediocre series television, so the best Nolen, or his lead actor, Douglas Rees, do to enliven the proceedings are for naught. “Under the Skin” isn’t worth the transfusion. It’s time passes pleasantly but idly. Hollinger leaves nothing to chew on, nothing that really makes us think about or challenge our own humanity.

Instead, he resorts to a gimmick that harkens back to the title of one of his previous plays. He springs a series of red herrings. Amid the plangently obvious scenes, Hollinger hatches surprises, little twists of fate that don’t quite come from left field but are stunners at the moment they are revealed.

But only for that moment. Once any cat leaps from its bag to the stage, its handling too becomes obvious and without dramatic follow-through. The revelations become reasons for more discussion, and each discussion echoes the matter-of-fact pattern of Lou and Raina’s original contretemps. For all the kindling he arranges, Hollinger never managed to ignite a flame.

Nothing the playwright does makes a difference, and the neatness with which he blends his plots and conflicts becomes cloying rather than involving and packed with emotion or issues. In every instance, the conversation that takes place is the one that is expected. About the only scene that varies from this pattern is one in which Raina, having lunch in a hospital cafeteria, ends up sitting with the young man, winningly played by Biko Eisen-Martin, who feels so affectionate toward Lou, whom he calls Uncle Gummy because Lou would give him regular presents of gummy bears when he was a child who needed attention.

So much gets told in “Under the Skin,” but little has any effect. Hollinger has found enough red herrings. He needed to find a way to make them count, to set the audience on edge, fear for a childish or temperamental decision, turn pique to justified loathing, or do something that would lift “Under the Skin” from a sweet and amiable sitcom to a play that gets to the raw essence of all it brings to the stage, which is whether one person should control whether another gets to live and relationships that pertain to everyone of us.

“Under the Skin” requires too much insulin once all becomes a symphony of humanity and goodness. Before then, it requires patience.

To give Hollinger, and especially Nolen, credit, “Under the Skin” doesn’t bore. It fails to entertain because it has no courage to take a stand or delve deeply into the subjects it raises.

I know. It isn’t really a piece about kidney transplants. Hollinger has broader, more universal intentions. “Under the Skin” is about relationships, and how we are all related to some Adam or Noah or progenitor (and progenitress) who spawned the first human who could mate with others to make more humans. (As I once told a date who boasted his family goes back to 1620, “Mine does too. Mine goes back to 1620 BC. Everyone’s does. The difference is you know who the people from 1620 were, and I don’t. But don’t go bragging about pedigree. Go back to 1420, and we may be cousins!)

Hollinger wants us to embrace the idea that we are all of one family, one nativity under the skin. We are brothers and sisters who are in this together. Kumbaya, milord, kumbaya!

The thought is apt, mature, true, and lovely. The problem is it isn’t embellished or supported by “Under the Skin,” which would have done better to illuminate some of the conflicts that arise because we, as a world, don’t have that feeling of family fellowship or the abiding attitude that we’re all part of a common struggle. If Hollinger wants to express that, he has to write a different, bolder play. The good news is much of his work shows he is capable of rising to the task.

He just didn’t do it this time. “Under the Skin” may reflect a utopian communal feeling on the part of Michael Hollinger, but it didn’t make it to the stage engrossingly or convincingly. Perhaps the announced Arden production date came before Hollinger’s ideas could ripen. It makes no difference. “Under the Skin” is too obvious and, ultimately, too new age in outlook to be effective.

Terry Nolen and his cast work hard and succeed at making what is said, and sprung, buoyant enough for us to listen to “Under the Skin” and ride with it in spite of its flaws.

The first scene, one in which Raina rejects Lou on Christmas, has some tension because of the angle at which Nolen has set the characters on the stage. They are in positions of combat. Also, the cafeteria scene is a strong vignette of people meeting, experiencing a coincidence, and forming a bond that would have solidified and led to the same end if the coincidence remained unknown.

So, some passages of “Under the Skin” work as they should.

Nolen was smart to keep most of the scenes open and in bright light and to keep “Under the Skin” moving at a crisp, amiable pace.

Douglas Rees may have come to “Under the Skin” late. He replaced an actor who became ill as opening night approached and was brought in for the rescue.

Rees was still on book for part of the performance I saw.

No matter. His glances to the script were inconsequential and did not affect his inflections or the consistency of his character.

On the contrary, Rees and Nolen should be proud of how quickly and completely Rees was able to convey Lou’s character and bring out the friendliness and common sense everyone but his daughter can see.

Rees anchors the production and keeps it on a keel where we want to watch in spite of the obviousness of the conversations and the lack of suspense in the small conflicts that arise. “Under the Skin” is essentially a comedy about the 21st century American family, and Rees’s jauntiness and humor as Lou sets the tone for the play’s lightness and cordiality.

Julianna Zinkel works to give Raina some edge. She tries her best to look fed up with her father and to be disagreeable. It isn’t enough. Hollinger doesn’t sustain Raina’s stubbornness or vindictiveness long enough for an attempt at negative characterization to take hold. That leaves Zinkel as one more voice in the dialogue, and she plays her part well. Especially in the scene in which she becomes attracted to Jarrell, the young student who calls Lou Uncle Gummy.

Seeing Biko Eisen-Martin in “Under the Skin” after Walter Mosley’s “Lift” and Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly,” I realize he is an actor capable of a lot of versatility and subtlety. He uses both to give Jarrell the most variety of any of the characters in “Under the Skin.” Eisen-Martin exudes sincerity and gratitude in his approach to Lou. You see the appreciation Jarrell has for a man who gave him some attention when few others did. You also see the decent way Jarrell proceeds in the world in general.

One note to Terry Nolen: I was momentarily confused when Eisen-Martin emerged as Jarrell after playing a male nurse in a scene that occurs before Jarrell enters. Even though I noticed the absence of the accent Eisen-Martin affects as the nurse and caught that Lou was asking him about school in a way that would not pertain to the nurse, the transition to a dual role was not immediately clear.

Alice Gatling slides into every part so naturally, she makes you wonder if she has a personality of her own at all.

In “Under the Skin,” Gatling plays a few characters, but she distinguishes herself as Jarrell’s soothing, reasonable mother and as the doctor who treats Lou and who reveals whether Raina or Jarrell is the best match to donate a kidney for his survival.

Almost every line of “Under the Skin” reveals a new fact about a character. You know plenty about Lou before Hollinger’s play breaks. Information and full character creation do not make a play on this occasion. More’s the pity. Hollinger has thought so much of all we need to know. The job is to return to the keyboard and see where the real life, conflict, and particularly drama is in all he invented.

“Under the Skin” runs through Sunday, March 15, at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m. are scheduled for Feb. 11, March 4, and March 11. Sunday evening shows at 7 p.m. are set for Feb. 22 , March 1, and March 15. Tickets range from $50 to $38 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by visiting




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