Michael Hollinger’s play “Under the Skin”—having its West Coast premiere at International City Theatre (ICT) through May 14—takes a deep dive into the ties that bind us. A father needs a kidney, but his grown daughter needed him when he wasn’t there. Does she now owe him part of herself?
With a humorous touch that saves the play from being too melodramatic, a non-linear story structure and a couple of major plot twists to shake things up, “Under the Skin” succeeds in making a transcendent point about love and family, especially when life is on the line.
Raina (Allison Blaize) feels ambivalent about her father Lou (Tony Abatemarco), who shows up at her doorstep in Ohio saying he has renal failure. He also wants to see the four-year-old granddaughter he’s never met—whom he keeps calling Lilah though her name is Lily—but Raina doesn’t let him.
Soon racing to visit Lou in the Philadelphia hospital (set design by Tim Mueller) where she thinks he’s dying, Raina scribbles a pro-and-con list to help her decide whether or not she should donate a kidney to him. But the list is only a long account of Lou’s cons— years of cheating on his wife, lying to Raina about a puppy and making excuses for being absent.
This premise may seem heavy, but playwright Hollinger keeps Raina’s and Lou’s exchanges droll. Lou may not have been the best father to Raina, but he owns his shortcomings and is proud of his carpentry skills. Abatemarco embodies Lou well, delivering his dryly humorous lines with a gravelly voice.
As a young mother so harried she uses a mindfulness app to stop everything and take three deep breaths at random moments, Raina now faces a frenetic life-or-death decision concerning her absent father. Blaize brings an open energy to Raina’s stream-of-consciousness neuroticism as she tries to reconcile a lifetime of hurt with doing “right” by Lou.
Other characters further complicate matters. Julian Smith portrays an orderly and also Jarrell, a potential kidney donor at the hospital who charms Raina. And Tanya Alexander easily switches between roles as a competent doctor, a sassy coffee barista and Jarrell’s pain-wizened mother.
Directed by ICT Artistic Director caryn desai [sic], some scenes can feel plodding, especially in the first half as character dynamics are established with a lot of dialogue and not as much movement. But the play picks up momentum and interest as we become invested in the characters. Heated exchanges following shocking family revelations are especially enjoyable and well executed by the cast.
The play seems built around these surprising plot twists. Characters also break the fourth wall at times by speaking directly to the audience. In these unexpected ways, the play’s structure—delivered through capable acting—helps “Under the Skin” make a profound point about who counts as family and what we owe each other, kidney-wise or otherwise.
International City Theatre’s “Under the Skin” continues through May 14 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach, with shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $49 to $52 and can be purchased by calling (562) 436-4610 or visiting ICTLongBeach.org. Run time is 2 hours plus intermission. Masks are optional.