Friday, November 16, 2007

PLAY: "Baby with the Bathwater"

Victor Verhaeghe, Anna Fitzwater, and Karen Culp look at the baby.
(Photo/Randy Morrison)

John (Victor Verhaeghe), a despairingly incompetent and increasingly drunk father, has a song he likes to sing: "Hush little baby, don't you cry/or Mama's gonna give you a big black eye." Those aren't the words to the song, and he despairingly knows as much, but in a world of foamy floor mats, hazardous alphabet cubes, and an LSD-inspired wallpaper of bright pink polka dots, they might as well be. Baby With the Bathwater, first penned by Christopher Durang in 1984, is a glorious satire on bringing up baby, without any childproofing, let alone adult proofing. There are sharp edges everywhere, from his wife Helen's (Karen Culp) passive-aggressive comas that say so much about our so-called "loving" relationships to their Nanny's (Anna Fitzwater) perverse, baby-shaking Mary Poppins shtick. Under Kevin Connell's crisp direction, even the pre-show is rich with the wicked underbelly of family values: a retro edutainment tape plays congratulating a family on successfully teaching their child about menstruation.

Baby with the Bathwater is a difficult sort of comedy, the kind that you'd get if George Carlin had been George Carlin instead of Mr. Conductor on Shining Time Station. It is unrelentingly funny, but repetitiously so, which requires that the actors remain fresh and absurdly perky. In this, Ground UP Productions has nailed the casting, with Mr. Verhaeghe visibly unraveling, and Ms. Culp always looking for affection (despite her own affectation) in new and unusual ways. They are gross exaggerations, but pleasantly so, and Gina Restani, playing a variety of straight women (well, by comparison at least), puts their comedy in modulation, and Ms. Fitzwater, as a literal handful of psychoses, continues to distort their well-intentioned efforts. As for their son Daisy (Jeremy King), he's exactly what you'd expect of such parents, when he eventually appears toward the tail end of the show. Standing in a spotlight, speaking to an unseen psychiatrist, he is wide-eyed, twitchy, and soft-spoken, a product of days spent lying depressed in a laundry basket or running suicidally toward buses.

According to the crazed schoolmarm Mrs. Willoughby, such suffering never fails to produce great art, and Daisy's "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay truly sounds like "Donald Barthleme meets Sesame Street." (It's also suspiciously like the more adult Matt's manic monologues in Durang's 1985 play, The Marriage of Bette and Boo.) Fun as some might find the suffering prose of Woolf or Plath, Durang isn't interested in plumbing the depths of depression so much as he is in distorting them to comedic highs, and Baby with the Bathwater is a success. Here, The Brothers Karamazov is used to explain that everything is permitted because there is no God, and that there is therefore "no right or wrong, only fun": with that motto in mind, one can only delight (and even find hope) in the thought that no matter how insane your parents were, life goes on.

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