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Lisa Kron’s Well famously comes apart toward the end, too, but it’s intentional: The author’s entertaining conceit puts Kron herself front and center for a postmodern “theatrical exploration” of issues familial, medical, and metaphysical—then explodes the whole business in a series of comical meta-theatrics that finds characters rebelling against authors and actors suggesting re-writes as the show goes ever more rapidly off the rails. All that, plus a meddling mother, played with a kind of perfect maternal inevitability by Nancy Robinette, and you’ve got a show that works mostly like a charm.
Kyle Donnelly, an old hand at working effectively in the Fichandler Theater—Arena Stage’s challenging in-the-round space—matches the script’s surprises with a whole string of staging tricks, including at least two genuinely startling entrances (or maybe I should say eruptions) that capture the show’s playful deconstructing-theater vibe. Her designers (notably Thomas Lynch, who did the rehearsal-room-invaded-by-a-living-room set, and lighting genius Nancy Schertler) contribute an artificial space that nonetheless somehow disappears when Kron and Donnelly want to trick you momentarily into believing in the characters’ world. And a tight little supporting ensemble—Susan Lynskey, Scott Drummond, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, and Marc Damon Johnson—provides a pungently funny reminder that support is what keeps every worthwhile edifice upright.
Amusing as that foursome is, the night belongs to Robinette and Emily Ackerman, the actress who inhabits the tightly wound, increasingly exercised persona of Lisa Kron. (The playwright played herself in earlier productions.) They strike such sparks of exasperation off each other that you’d swear they’d been gaming the parent-child dynamic for decades. What’s more important, they deliver beautifully when, after one final (and somehow unexpected) meta-theatrical twist, Kron finally drops the stagy acrobatics and lets the play bloom with genuine feeling. Well’s a smart, witty show—but its heart is in the right place, too, and these two sure know how to locate it.