The subtitle of Ken Urban's I (Heart) Kant is "a play about happiness." Like Todd Solondz's choice for the title of his film Happiness, Urban's statement is a less-than-honest appraisal of his work. I (Heart) Kant is more a splendidly adroit play about misery than anything else, telling the stories of four desperately unhappy women in crisis.
Urban defines happiness in the negative with drug-addled Maureen (Kate Downing); Pam (Edelen McWilliams), who is living (or not) through a bombing at her office building; Betsy (Frances Mercanti-Anthony), who has just slept with her brother at a family reunion; and Linda (Kate Benson), a grad student in philosophy who is failing to write her dissertation on 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Despite the title, I (Heart) Kant eschews writerly pretension in favor of four well-drawn naturalistic portraits, aided by Steven Boyer as various boyfriends, psychiatrists, and friends. Lee Savage's set -- essentially a box with four compartments -- complements the script well and breaks down as the play does, thrusting the previously isolated characters into each others' company in order for them to reach philosophical solutions to their very concrete problems. Urban's one misstep is to bring himself into the mix at the very end: The out-of-the-blue "a playwright has put me on paper" speech has been done so many times that it just seems cloying.
But that's a minor quibble. All four women acquit themselves beautifully, particularly Benson, who makes her character's humorlessness the funniest thing in the play. Dylan McCullough's direction unites the styles of the five strikingly different actors in such a way that the play's dramatic shifts in tone seem neither jarring nor dull -- just surprising in the best sense. Ultimately, when Urban drags the famously inscrutable Kant into the mix, the result is surprisingly meaningful.
Presented by the Committee
at the Linhart Theater @ 440 Studios, 440 Lafayette St., NYC.
Sept. 8-Oct. 2. Mon., Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
(212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.