And Baby Makes Trouble

Invisible Theatre follows in the footsteps of young parenthood.

The pitter-patter of little feet will soon set the rhythm of Ben and Joanie's lives. As anyone who's dealt with toddlers knows, the sound of those little footsteps should set adults on red alert; what minor disaster might they portend?

Similarly, Ben and Joanie are taking little steps of their own toward parenthood, and it looks like one of them will soon fall face-flat, leaving the other with a diaper full of poop.

Ted Tally's comedy Little Footsteps opens Invisible Theatre's new season in a confident, perfectly timed production that has managed to draw laughs from audiences preoccupied with last week's terrorism.

A light comedy is the last thing moviegoers would expect from Tally, who wrote the screenplays for such films as Silence of the Lambs and All the Pretty Horses. The Oscar winner brings a lighter touch to his stage work, but Tally almost trips himself up in the structure of Little Footsteps.

The first act is a sequence of solo standup comedy routines interspersed with some character interaction. Ben and Joanie individually confide in the audience as if we were friends who'd just dropped by to watch them convert their dining room into a nursery. (We're also privy to a fantasy sequence based on a classic dead-baby joke.) In the second act, Ben, Joanie and now Joanie's parents are oblivious to the audience as they indulge in all-out farce.

Almost every moment of this play could easily drop into stagey buffoonery, but director Gail Fitzhugh and the cast show admirable restraint. By not pressing the jokes and pratfalls too hard, they make the characters more believable and the show much funnier.

Joanie may be pregnant with her first child, but there's already a baby in the apartment: husband Ben. He's charming, good-looking in a childlike way, self-centered and ruled by his emotions. Joanie herself has a childlike innocence, not to mention the former art major's inability to get and hold a meaningful job, but she does seem better equipped to handle parenthood than Ben.

Joanie is a sweet person, but she's terrified that Ben will bolt if the pregnancy goes wrong. Ben looks ready to bolt, anyway; prone to anxiety attacks, he ducks reality by turning everything into a joke, often a joke that veers toward viciousness. "I'm compelled to be a total shit just so I can admire how [Joanie] copes with it," he admits.

Eventually Joanie declines to cope, and everything has fallen apart by the second act, which takes place during a party following the baby's christening. (Ben, who is Jewish, earlier suggested to his Episcopalian wife that they compromise with a "brisening." It's a great line, but this is no mere remake of Abie's Irish Rose, or, if you prefer, Bridget Loves Bernie.)

Joanie's mother, Charlotte, has shown up to keep things running smoothly through Joanie's post-partum depression and her despair over Ben's behavior. You can tell just what sort of person Charlotte is by the way she (with help from set designer James Blair) has transformed the dining room-turned nursery's bright rainbow-and-butterfly décor into tasteful blue-striped wallpaper suitable for, well, a dining room. Meanwhile, Joanie's father, Gil, stands by with his plates of hors d'oeuvres, gently trying to talk sense into people embroiled in a farce he can barely comprehend.

Charlotte could easily come off as a cartoonishly prim, haughty, know-it-all mother-in-law, but as portrayed by Kathleen Todd Erickson, she's all those things minus the cartoonishness. Subtle and well-pointed, Erickson's performance makes Charlotte a joy to watch--as long as you don't have to watch her in your own household.

Although his part is fairly small, Tom Turner is an endearing Gil, momentarily befuddled but never stupid.

The play's real stars, though, are Traci Hartley as Joanie and Art Almquist as Ben. Almquist nicely captures Ben's complexity; he's boyishly likeable, and a repentant victim of his own uncontrollable, darker impulses. Hartley, a delight as Harper in Millennium Approaches last spring at the UA, is quite a different mad housewife this time around--loveable, damaged and never more in control than in her few moments of dottiness.

Some people may have thought this a rather trivial show to open in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, especially since it's set in a more light-hearted New York City than we know today. But Invisible Theatre managing artistic director Susan Claassen, in a brief pre-curtain statement, made a good case for the show going on last week. Claassen did cancel the September 11 opening, but later in the week she was succinctly justifying the production as a "respite" from the horror, then passing the hat for Red Cross donations.

That noble little action followed by a well-done, pressure-relieving comedy are precisely the kinds of healing efforts for which we desperately need arts groups like Invisible Theatre.