Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2007
Something has gone horribly wrong with the Mill City Productions staging of Christopher Durang’s 1983 dark comedy Baby With The Bathwater. It’s not funny, and when a show this dark fails to provoke laughter it instead provokes gasps of horror, because there technically is nothing funny about incompetent parenting, which is the topic of this, and many other Durang works.
Baby With The Bathwater is written in an absurdist style, and while the action of the play occurs in chronological order through the life of the titular Baby aka Daisy, it follows no other logical progression. Baby (Joshua Sprague in Act II) is born to Helen (Wendy Walraven) and John (Matthew J. Snyder). She is a frustrated novelist and he is a hopeless alcoholic who, after spending a week behind the refrigerator, emerged to announce “... the immaturities of my youth are over...Let’s make a baby.” The arrival of the result of that decision has them completely stumped. Enter Nanny (Jackie DeGiorgis) a Mary Poppins wanna-be who gets a list of all the new parents from the hospital and then just descends upon them. Nanny tosses Baby about, sleeps with John, and gives Baby a toy containing lead, asbestos, and red dye number two. A young woman named Cynthia (Liz Urban) whose recently delivered infant has been devoured by her German Shepherd also appears in Act I and attempts to kidnap Baby.
In Act II we learn that Baby, now called Daisy, fares no better in childhood than s/he did in infancy, as a conversation between Helena and other parents (Mike Grogan and Kelli Newby) on a bench in the playground, and between one of Daisy’s teachers (Jeanne Matthew) and her Principal (Michele M. Delisle) prove. Ultimately we meet the 17-year-old Daisy, and follow him through more than a decade of therapy (Michael Hitchcock provides the disembodied voice of the therapist) and college, until a show-down with his parents on his 30th birthday leads to a sweet and hopeful final scene with Susan (Samantha Therrien).
I have spent the hours since I left the theatre pondering where the problem lay. I have no doubt that director Marissa Carlson understands Durang’s humor. Indeed, I cannot imagine someone who didn’t understand his humor having the stomach to stage one of his shows. Taken at their face value they are horrible and horrifying. In her director’s notes in the program Carlson credits her cast with an “...intuitive understanding of [Durang’s] particular brand of humor,” but I am less convinced that she is right on that count. There are many cast members who, while they may understand Durang’s humor, seem incapable of playing it. Unfortunately the leads - Walraven and Snyder - fall solidly into that category.
Baby With The Bathwater is considered one of Durang’s better plays, which would lead one to believe that the problem could not lie with the script, although I have my doubts on that score too. This is a mean and heartless play. I was interested first to dig out my script and read the carefully edited quotations from reviews of the original Broadway production that appeared on the dust jacket, and then to go online and read Frank Rich’s New York Times review in its entirety. Here are some carefully edited quotations that I selected: “...a few bright lines notwithstanding, we can't ignore that Act I of BaBaby With The Bathwater is a strained variation on past Durang riffs...a string of Mommie Dearest gags in which Mr. Durang's feelings of victimization are more pronounced than the freshness of his comic invention.”
Rich goes on to say that he found Act II to be much funnier and ultimately redemptive because: “[Durang] finally lets us see his play's victim, rather than just his tormentors.” Frankly, I was desperate for Sprague to make his appearance as Daisy, both because I consider him to be a talented actor, and because I couldn’t bear to hear the absent Baby/Daisy verbally abused a moment longer. While Sprague lived up to some of my hopes and turned in a thoughtful performance, he was not able to salvage the entire production. It was unrealistic to expect that he could, and Daisy’s ultimate appearance comes far too late in the play in any case.
I did find some relief in Grogan’s hilarious turn as bench-sitter Alex, father of the very pretty and unseen Susie. Of all the actors on the stage, I felt the Grogan really DID understand Durang’s humor and how to convey it successfully to the audience.
Which brings us to the other likely culprit in the failure of the opening night performance – the audience. Let’s assume that your average person on the street has never heard of Christopher Durang or seen or read one of his plays. I do not think that was the case with the opening night crowd because they seemed mostly to be friends and relations of the performers and/or were theatre people themselves. But Durang is not what most people expect when they attend a community theatre production of a “comedy.” They are expecting something more along the lines of Neil Simon than Eugčne Ionesco or Tom Stoppard. In fact, Durang’s writing bears a resemblance to Stoppard’s in that you have to think like the playwright in order to really understand it. I happen to have grown up in approximately the same time and place as Durang, and so I “get” him. I wonder if the Mill City actors, most of whom are young enough to be his children, really do fully understand his work?
While uneven acting ability is to be expected in community theatre, the shabby sets and props are something that Mill City can, and should, have done better with. I realized when I looked at photos of other productions, that there were gags that fell flat simply for want of better set dressing or more explicit props. I have seen wonderfully designed Mill City shows, and there is no excuse for them not to have gone out, in the time-honored tradition of community theatre, and begged, borrowed, or stolen the best possible props and furniture for this show.
I hope that continued performances before more cooperative audiences succeed in bringing the comedy back into this production. I think it is wonderful that Mill City wants to branch out and present work outside the range of what is “expected” of a community theatre group. And, even if this attempt is ultimately not one of their more successful, I know that they will bounce back strong again in the near future.
Baby with the Bathwater will be performed at Main Street Stage in North Adams March 2, 3, 9 & 10 at 8 p.m. and March 4 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for students & seniors. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is not recommended for children under 12. Call 413-663-3211 for reservations. For more information visit the Mill City Productions Web site.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007