Nora’s ‘Saving Kitty:’ Stifler would be very proud

Alexanfer Cook and Jennifer Coolidge in the Nora Theatre Company's "Saving Kitty." Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

Alexander Cook and Jennifer Coolidge in the Nora Theatre Company’s “Saving Kitty.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

CAMBRIDGE — There was a buzz in the air at the Central Square Theatre on the night of a recent performance.

There was great anticipation as Norwell native and Emerson College alumna Jennifer Coolidge made her Boston stage debut in the Nora Theatre Company’s production of Marisa Smith‘s comedy “Saving Kitty.”
The audience at a recent performance came prepared to laugh, and they did. Much was expected, and much was delivered.
“Saving Kitty” rolls over much of the same turf as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” in the story of a New York City husband and wife whose lives are turned upside down when their Dartmouth-educated daughter brings home Paul Cook (Lewis D. Wheeler), a handsome educator who just happens to be an evangelical Christian from Virginia.
Coolidge’s Kate Hartley, a former soap opera star, and husband Huntley (Alexander Cook), an executive at the United Nations, are forced to confront their pre-conceived notions and biases about evangelicals, and what marrying someone like that might mean for their daughter Kitty (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan).

Lewis D. Wheeler and Jennifer Coolidge in "Saving Kitty." Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

Lewis D. Wheeler and Jennifer Coolidge in “Saving Kitty.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

As Kate’s inquisition of Paul draws laughs, there were probably some uncomfortable laughs, too. You might wonder how many Cantabridgians — or residents of other liberal-minded communities or yourself, for that matter — would be comfortable if their daughter brought home a fiancée who was an evangelical Christian? Even if he were as handsome and obviously intelligent as Paul Cook?
Coolidge has honed her comedic skills on TV and in films, including playing the ultra-cougar known as Stifler’s Mom in the high-grossing — and often just plain gross — “American Pie” film series. You also might know her from “Legally Blonde” and Christopher Guest movies such as “Best in Show,” the folk music mockumentary “A Mighty Wind,” and “For Your Consideration,” as well as TV’s “Two Broke Girls.”
The tall, voluptuous Coolidge, with the sexy, come hither voice, is a walking, talking double-entendre as worried mom Kate, and it doesn’t hurt that her comic timing is impeccable.
So is the timing of the rest of the cast, including Wheeler, the son of the late director David Wheeler and an accomplished actor in his own right. He holds his own in an extended pas de deux with Coolidge as she probes him for signs of weakness in her effort to derail the relationship.
Complicating matters is that Paul, it turns out, isn’t a caveman. He sports a PhD from UCLA in education, is heading a school in the Bronx, believes in evolution, isn‘t a fundamentalist, and isn’t above taking a drink.
Barnett-Mulligan is perky, enthusiastic, and all over the place as Kitty, a TV producer who is a veteran of serial engagements in the past that have all gone wrong.
Coolidge as Kate isn’t a one-trick pony. At the same time she is knee-deep in her daughter’s future, she is also a woman on the brink, the victim of her husband growing ever-distant from her.
Cook’s Huntley is an intense, distracted sort, who always appears to have something going on, and in fact he does.

Kate is not above getting down and dirty, such as when she presses an ear to a bedroom door to see if Paul is giving “the car” “a test drive” before he marries Kitty.
Smith also provides Kate a quiver of verbal arrows, and some strong one-liners. At one point, Kate clarifies her political viewpoint. “I’m not a liberal. I’m a New Yorker.”
Coolidge as Kate does vulnerability quite well, too, as her husband’s infidelity shakes her foundation to the core. 
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner — marking the end of her first year as artistic director of the Nora — allows Coolidge her space but has a firm hand on the throttle so things never get out of hand.
“Saving Kitty” is not a perfect piece. It tends to wander around a bit for the last 15-20 minutes, looking for a place to land as the Kitty-Paul relationship ebbs and flows. But it works on many levels, not the least of which is a vehicle for Coolidge to make her welcome Boston stage debut.
Stifler would be very, very proud.
The Nora Theatre Company production of Marisa Smith’s “Saving Kitty.” Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Set, Steven Royal. Lights, John R. Malinowski. Costumes, Barbara Douglass. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Aug. 2. Tickets: $15-$74. 866-811-4111, www.centralsquare