Baby Talk

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crowd-youre-in-with.jpgI thought it was pretty ironic that on the way home Thursday night from the Goodman after seeing Rebecca Gilman’s latest play, the “to procreate or not to procreate” drama The Crowd You’re In With, a baby was bawling its tonsils out on my Brown Line “L” car.  For me, a screaming baby on the “L”, just like Swiss chard on anything or Paula Abdul’s voice on a record, is just plain unacceptable.  Yes, I was irritated.  I’m probably not as child-friendly as many of my friends (and I am at that age already where a lot of people I know either have year-old kids, or are on their second or third baby), but I’m not as extreme as some of the characters are in Gilman’s play – to be honest about it, I just don’t see parenting in my tarot cards in the near to medium-term future, but I respect those who have decided to undertake this immense responsibility.  The Rebecca Gilman plays I’ve seen have always been about big topics contextualized into personal stories, whether it is poverty (Blue Surge), 21st century feminism (Dollhouse), or racism (Spinning Into Butter).  I think The Crowd You’re In With, although intriguing, contemporary, and exceptionally well-written at times is quite slight, and to be frank about it, mundane.   I don’t really see anything revelatory about this play, but maybe that’s just my problem, since the themes are too familiar, are too often part of my Sunday brunch conversations, that I feel that I shouldn’t have gone to the theater to see them dissected, even if there are interesting points being made.

The setting of The Crowd You’re In With is a Fourth of July barbecue in the northside of Chicago (there are enough references in the play to suspect that Gilman is thinking of my Lincoln Square neighborhood), hosted by a mid-thirtyish, urban, highly-educated professional couple, Jasper and Melinda.  Their guests represent the polar opposites of the “should we have a baby or not” discourse – their landlords, an elderly, but vigorously living-life-to-its-fullest couple, Tom and Karen, who’ve made the decision very early on in their relationship not to have kids, and their best friends, Dan and Windsong, from the same demographic as Jasper and Melinda, who are expecting their first child.  I think the generational inversion is pretty interesting – you would expect that the older couple would be the ones with the strong parental focus, not the younger one.  Near the beginning of the play, Windsong says that with the Iraq war and the state of the world today, she feels pretty apprehensive about the kind of world her baby will grow up in, and Karen sarcastically responds that the world will end in her unborn child’s lifetime.  I really thought Gilman would pursue this track, which could have uplifted the intellectual heft of the play – I think there could have been a fascinating, multi-layered morally ambiguous discussion (is it fair?  Is it right?) on choosing to bring children into a world of environmental issues, economic decline, and uneasy politics.  But despite that tantalizing hint, the play ultimately boils down to the recounting of the pros (such as you replicate your loved ones) and cons (such as your kids grow up to yell the F word to you during a heated argument) of having children, things I have already rehashed and retreaded with many of my friends on numerous occasions.  Gilman isn’t telling me anything new.  One thing I noticed though is that the odds are stacked in favor of the anti-kids faction; I would have preferred a more balanced point of view.

The Crowd You’re In With is warmly and plainly directed by Wendy Goldberg, Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, one of the most highly-regarded organizations in the American theater community.  She gives free rein to her fantastic cast and lets them shine; I especially like the always meticulously-nuanced and personable Chicago actor Coburn Goss as a conflicted Jasper, and the New York actress Linda Gehringer as the initially acerbic and tough, but ultimately touching and relatable Karen.  One of Gilman’s trademarks are big, showstopping speeches, and she writes a doozy here for the fifth guest,  Jasper and Melinda’s single friend Dwight, a waiter in a restaurant, played with spot-on humor and a total lack of caricature by Sean Cooper.  His recounting of how he feels about the different types of parents and kids who come to his restaurant comes out of left field and is sharply and memorably articulated.  It’s one of those unexpected pleasures that ultimately make the theater-going experience worth it, despite the overall feeling that what you’ve been watching so far has been as insightful as a Lifetime Television for Women serial.

You can join the baby debate at the Goodman, 170 N. Dearborn, until June 21.

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