So you're, like, this 16-year-old girl living in the Jersey burbs, and you have all the same insecurities and cravings and hopes as every other teenage girl except for this one problem: You age 4 1/2 times as fast as your peers.
Your biological clock ticks so rapidly that menopause is already a distant memory. Other kids are studying for their SATs, and you have to be more concerned about your EKGs. You're a medical curiosity, an extreme example of how unfairly the deck can be stacked. Life is just beginning, and it's already passed you by.
For this calamity of nature, poignant is a word that comes to mind. But it's the furthest thing from David Lindsay-Abaire's. In "Kimberly Akimbo," his new play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Lindsay-Abaire takes the formula for heartstring-pulling soap -- and, more specifically, television disease-of-the-week movies -- and repackages it as screwball comedy. Kimberly's illness is, in fact, only one of the myriad problems afflicting her and those in her orbit, a dysfunctional gallery that includes her accident-prone mother, light-fingered aunt and inebriated father.
"Kimberly Akimbo" lacks some of the ferocious farcical charm of "Fuddy Meers," the comedy that launched Lindsay-Abaire in New York. (He has since become a regular in Washington at Woolly Mammoth, where his subsequent play, "Wonder of the World," had its world premiere.) The effervescent confection loses its fizz by the end. Yet his is such an original voice that you're willing to play along, even after the premise wears a little thin.
The play, too, retains buoyancy on the strength of its central coup, the casting of 62-year-old Marylouise Burke in the role of 16-year-old Kimberly Levaco. Burke is something of a muse for the playwright; in "Fuddy Meers," she played an amnesia victim whose memory of the world went blank at the end of every day and had to be restoked every morning. In "Akimbo," she portrays another freak of science, although this time the theatrical guise that she assumes is all the more startling: She is a teenager, only with wrinkles.
More than the mere idea of a teenager, too. At the breakfast table of the Levacos' Bogota, N.J., home -- a garden-variety suburban box, complete with avocado-tone refrigerator and wall clock shaped like a sunburst -- Kimberly is also garden-variety: She's your basic world-weary teen, terminally irritated at Mom (Jodie Markell) and Dad (Jake Weber) and a bit dreamy-eyed about a geeky boy (John Gallagher Jr.) who, to her astonishment, pays her some attention.
Burke manages to make you forget that she's got 50 years on Kimberly. This is the result in part of the nonjudgmental way in which Burke approaches the role, but also of how convincingly director David Petrarca uses the other actors. They relate to her in the tentative way adults tend to behave when faced with adolescent volatility. And Burke is especially good at the impenetrability of youth. You're never quite sure how desperately she views her own plight. She plays it close to the vest, as anyone of Kimberly's age might.
The play's best scene is the culmination of Burke's effortless acting stunt; a check-forging scheme is hatched by Kimberly's Aunt Debra (Ana Gasteyer, of "Saturday Night Live" fame, in an overly pushy performance) requiring Kimberly to pose at a bank as an unthreatening matronly type. The instant Burke appears onstage in dowdy old lady's clothes is truly eerie. It works not so much as confirmation of the actress's age, but as a sure sign of Kimberly's sickness; she really is going to die soon.
The bank caper, though, is an act of dramatic desperation, a sign that Lindsay-Abaire is not quite sure where to take this story. Weber is a dream in support; his loving portrayal of a suburban loser is as authentically Jersey as a strip mall off the turnpike. Petrarca adds bouncy underscoring by Jason Robert Brown that sounds like a remixing of the theme song from "The Dating Game," and set designer Robert Brill provides a color scheme out of Dame Edna's decorating book. With all these intriguing ingredients, you're left with the hope that there's a way for the recipe to be improved.
Kimberly Akimbo, by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by David Petrarca. Sets, Robert Brill; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Bruce Ellman; original music, Jason Robert Brown. Approximately two hours. Through April 6 at Manhattan Theatre Club, New York. Call 212-581-1212 or visit www.manhattantheatreclub.com