‘Under the Skin’ now on stage at Arden Theatre in Philly

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A man appears at the home of his estranged daughter’s house on a Sunday evening. He’s come to bring a gift to his granddaughter, whose name he doesn’t seem to remember. In fact, he’s come to tell his daughter that he is dying of kidney failure, and only she can save him by giving him one of hers. Michael Hollinger’s newest play, “Under the Skin,” receiving its premiere at the Arden Theatre Co., does get right under your skin from the beginning.

Lou Ziegler (Douglas Rees) has been a lousy father. He was a womanizer and an overbearing man, who had little time for his daughter, Raina (Julianna Zinkel). What does this thirty-year-old, single mother of a four-year-old owe this man who was absent most of her childhood, and whose philandering she believes caused the early death of her mother? Sound heavy? It is. But this is Michael Hollinger, local Philly playwright who’s spun a dozen plays off the local stages, and Hollinger has a wry sense of humor.

The cast is rounded out with Alice M. Gatling and Biko Eisen-Martin, who both play multiple roles. Eisen-Martin’s main character is Jarrell, a foil for Raina, Jarrell is in a similar predicament with an uncle, also in need of a kidney transplant.

The issues are profound, the drama, real, but there was something missing that took me a while to figure out as I watched the stories unfold. I didn’t care enough about the daughter whose lines in the first act were overwritten, or the father, who simply talked at, rather than to his daughter. There was a certain lack of texture in lines which seemed poignant, but played rather stridently. The first act could have used some judicious cutting.

Fortunately, Zinkel is a fine actor, and superbly portrays a young woman who is conflicted and indecisive in trying to make the biggest decision of her life. Is blood thicker than water?  But her scenes with Eisen-Martin, as she explains her crisis, are tedious. And Rees, a last-minute replacement for the original Ziegler, who fell ill after the play was finishing its previews, was barely off book and had yet to find his rhythm. Doing a yeoman’s job, he will still need to find the nuances that make this the complex play that it is.

An outstanding performance is turned in by Ms. Gatling. She steps from character to character with great presence in each.

The theater is set in the ¾ round, which provides an interesting flexibility, but Director Terence Nolen has often allowed significant characters to have their back to the audience, often losing some of the impact. Yet Hollinger’s range of humor is great and emerges when least expected. Zingers are his specialty, and he has his share of them.

IF YOU GO: “Under the Skin” continues through March 15 at the Otto Haas Stage of Arden Theatre Compnay, 40 N. Second St., Old City Philadelphia. Tickets are #$35-$50. Call  (215) 922-1122 or  visit www.ardentheatre.org .



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