MRT’s ‘The Kid’ isn’t a home run, but it has heart

Joel Colodner, Veronika Duerr and John Gregorio in Going To See The Kid." Photo by Meagan Moore

Joel Colodner, Veronika Duerr and John Gregorio in “Going To See The Kid.” Photo by Meghan Moore

LOWELL – It isn’t quite a home run. More like an extra-base hit. There’s a lot to like in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s world premiere production of Stephen Drukman’s “Going To See The Kid.”

Every good holiday story has a generous helping of schmaltz, hokiness and corn, and all three are here in good supply but happily, Drukman has also supplied interesting, well-drawn characters, some snappy dialogue and humorous situations for his characters. Baseball-wise, Drukman has the “street cred” earned as a long-time – and, one presumes, long-suffering – Red Sox fan.

The baseball references are en pointe, making him, as his character Globe reporter Simon Willicombe would sarcastically and smugly note, an “aficionado” of the game.

Fittingly for a show that features two Boston Globe reporters, the 90-minute production is played out on scenic designer Jason Sherwood’s deft, striking set that features blown-up sections of Boston Globe stories and mastheads from the various sections

It is the fall of 2001 and Veronika Duerr is Ellis Eliot, who attended Columbia Journalism School on scholarship and now is a stringer for the Boston Globe. The budding sportswriter oozes spunk, sass and loves her baseball. She is named after Red Sox pitcher Ellis Kinder, a teammate of Ted Willliams and a talented pitcher with a bad drinking problem who died in 1968 at the age of 54.

Joel Colodner and John Gregorio in "Going To See The Kid." Photo: Meagan Moore

Joel Colodner and John Gregorio in “Going To See The Kid.” Photo: Meghan Moore

Joel Colodner plays an erudite, reserved Globe staff reporter named Simon Willicombe, nearing the end of his career, who is fond of quoting the poet T.S. Eliot and whose catch phrase is “Never predict the future.”

The two have been assigned to “collaborate” – it’s not apparent who or what editor is to blame for the idea – on a profile of the failing Red Sox star Ted Williams at his Florida home, both realizing that it may be the last major story on the iconic Sox slugger.

It also may be the break that moves Ellis from stringer – a part-timer who is paid by the story, without a regular salary or benefits – to a full time staff position with benefits. The benefits part is important because with health insurance she might be able to help her father, in failing health, with the transplant he needs, although he is far down the donor list.

There are complications: Ellis has recently learned she is pregnant. Simon has virtually nothing in common with the young woman, and things go further downhill when Ellis flaunts her Columbia J-School credentials.

John Gregorio plays Ellis’ husband David, who decides to go along on the road trip. Age-wise, he may be one of the older PH d candidates around, but all is forgiven when he proceeds to author a series of hilarious supporting roles, including Elvis, a quirky acquaintance of Simon’s whom Ellis encounters in their NYC hotel, a redneck who harasses Ellis in a Virginia sports bar, and later as Ted Williams.

Gregorio’s portrayal of Williams has to walk a fine line. The decision to portray Williams as cranky and somewhat impaired is in line with the facts, but he has to take care not to lapse into cruel ridicule and erase our memories of the vital, powerful person he was for almost all of his life before his death in July 2002.

During the drive to Florida, Ellis and Simon begin the bonding process as Ellis drags Simon to a bar to watch a World Series game. Simon drips sarcasm when the game finally ends. “Four and a half hours. How Time Flies.”

Another discussion turns to the timeline of the arrival of Simon’s family in the country, either before or shortly after the Pilgrims.

“My people are from Saugus,” Ellis says. “We came over on a later boat.”

Director Alexander Greenfield, head of new play development at the MRT, adroitly cast the piece but presumably he and dialect coach Christine Hamel are responsible for Duerr’s Boston accent that is just too over the top.

And while Drukman is a noted former journalist, “Going To See The Kid” also requires a willing suspension of disbelief that a newspaper – even in the era when they had money – would ever actually pay for a four-day road trip to Florida for a staff writer and a stringer, staying in separate hotel rooms in New York City to boot, and allowing the husband to tag along.

There will come a point in “Going To See The Kid” when it appears all is lost for Ellis when it comes to her interview with Ted and her chance to land a staff job. When Simon goes back into Ted’s home to retrieve something he left behind, the twists and surprises will begin, until all is eventually happily wrapped up in a Christmas bow.

So employ that willing suspension of disbelief and enjoy a good-hearted “buddy” road trip with plenty of holiday cheer at the end.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre world premiere production of Stephen Drukman’s “Going To See The Kid.” Directed by Alexander Greenfield. Scenic design by Jason Sherwood. Lighting design by Brian J. Lillenthal. Costume design by Stephanie Levin. Sound design by Alex Neumann. At the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre through Dec. 24. http://www.mrt.org.

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