I’ve been spending so much time in basements the past couple of weeks, you’d think it’s Gay Pride weekend already (oh, please, for those of you fake gasping, I know where you troll!). After seeing Pinter in an actual apartment building basement one week, I was at the Chopin Theater basement studio the next to see Backstage Theatre Company’ s production of Edward Albee’s The Play About The Baby, which, curiously, has not been seen in the city since it’s Chicago premiere at the Goodman in 2003. I saw that Goodman production and remember it mostly for Linda Kimbrough’s belly-achingly funny Woman; I also remember the play as too much of Albee showing off as the smartest guy in the room. And I’m a big Albee fan! I don’t think Backstage tempered any of that Albee showboating, but, through solid performances and a clear-eyed directorial hand from Artistic Director Matthew Reeder, I think it clarified for me some of the incisive points that I missed during the earlier production.
The Play About The Baby starts off with a scantily-clad Boy and Girl breezily frolicking in their own personal Eden and taking care of their newborn baby. Then Man and Woman enter the picture, bringing with them their battle-scarred, jaded, world-weary, slightly sinister selves, initially annotating the action, then curiously interacting with Boy and Girl, and then finally proclaiming, at the end of Act One, that they’re there to take away the baby. Act Two is mostly about Man and Woman breaking Boy and Girl down to admit that they never had a baby, creating doubt in a world where innocence and trust have previously reigned. It’s a lot of confusing, somewhat affected (the repetition of key dialogue from Act One in Act Two and other meta-theatrics) business, which ultimately boils down to the fact that what Albee is telling us is that in real-life there are never any happily-ever-afters, that grown-ups delude and deceive, and that at some point you can’t even trust yourself, since hazy memories, self-doubt and what-could-have-beens ruthlessly envelop you as you grow older. It’s bitter, dark, cynical, with some really cutting, jolting lines of dialogue (when the Man says how can you live, when you have no wounds, it’s a pretty apt reflection of most of our human conditions); it is also somewhat tedious. The Play About The Baby is also a clever (a little bit too clever, in my opinion) riff on Albee’s best-known work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with another older-couple/younger-couple quartet, but where the older couple are the ones who’ve convinced themselves that they had an imaginary child. Reeder’s straightforward direction is helpful in engaging the audience with the work; it doesn’t fully rein in though the somewhat irritating artifice and the preciousness of the writing.
I think there’s always the danger of having overly-theatrical performances in an Albee work. I think the four actors in this production are highly watchable. Kate Cares as Girl is initially luminous and then genuinely heartbreaking in Act Two as she breaks down after being goaded by Man and Woman to admit that she never had a baby. Patrick DeNicola as Boy comes off better, I think, in Act Two where he is alternately pleading, defiant, and worn-out, then in Act One, when his exuberance and innocence comes off a little too put-on. Of course the juiciest roles are Man and Woman, and Michael Pacas and Karen Yates give interesting, committed performances. They’re pretty funny at times, and very believable as smooth operators out to wickedly and mercilessly administer the bitter truth serum to wide-eyed Pollyannas, but there are certain points in Act Two when their performances come off a little too over-the-top, a little too vaudevillian. Albee is tricky business, so I can appreciate that an actor needs to find that right balance of honesty and scenery-chewing that his work demands. The Play About The Baby, I think, is particularly difficult, because it is too self-satisfied, unlike my favorite Albee plays (Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, The Goat Or Who Is Sylvia) which are all a little bit more heart and a little less smart-ass.
The Play About The Baby is at the Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., until May 8. 2010.