Daisy's Chains

Amusing and disturbing, 'Baby With the Bathwater' gets full justice from LTW

Christopher Durang has always known how to put the fun in dysfunction, and Baby With the Bathwater is one of his most-amusing, most-disturbing, best-crafted plays about the horrors of family life. Live Theatre Workshop does it full justice with a production of irreversible comic momentum, as well as sensitivity to the play's darker implications.

If you have issues with your parents, be glad you weren't raised by John and Helen Dingleberry, whose incompetence would seem malevolent were they not such innocent lunatics. We find them cooing over the bassinet of their new baby, reluctant to determine its gender by peeking into its diaper--that would be too intrusive. This potluck of pet names and postpartum depression leads to the indigestible realization that John and Helen are not happy with their baby; it seems grumpy, perhaps even hostile when not absolutely terrified, and terrified it should well be. During its first day on Earth, it comes into the care of a demented Mary Poppins-style nanny whose techniques for quieting the squalling child are not much more advanced than yelling "Shut up!" (At least this is an improvement on John's approach, which involves Nyquil and quaaludes.) On day two, Baby is abducted by a strange intruder who recently lost her own child (a gruesome variation on "My dog ate my homework"); said intruder rushes into the street with babe in arms, but is run over by a bus. Baby survives no worse for wear, or so it seems.

That's just the viciously absurdist first act, and it was enough to drive away half a row of spectators on opening night. The second act takes quite a different tone; John and Helen remain horrible parents, but as secondary characters who are not utter lunatics enter the action, their incompetence begins to be seen as something less farcical and far more damaging.

Ultimately, Baby becomes a young adult. John and Helen have assumed it's a girl and named it Daisy. (There's a perfect tie-in here with the 1892 song "Daisy Bell," better known as "A Bicycle Built for Two"; the relevant line in the chorus: "I'm half crazy all for the love of you.") Around age 11, Daisy realizes he's a boy, although his parents continue to send him to school in dresses. By 17, Daisy enters therapy, and his sessions with the psychologist are where Durang remembers he has a heart, not just a mean wit.

Christopher Johnson enters the play late as Daisy, but he's worth waiting for. This is Johnson's best work with Live Theatre Workshop; while tinged with humor, his performance is full of sadness, vulnerability and frustration. Daisy's rage may be in short supply, but Johnson makes up for it with his otherwise complex yet gentle portrayal.

There's no room for such nuance in the first act, though, and director Sabian Trout smartly has Jeremy Thompson and Jodi Rankin present the parents as if they were 4-year-olds playing house, waddling across the stage like Teletubbies and surrendering to sudden, petulant mood swings. (The setting is perfect for this approach: panels and boxes painted barf-green and decorated with big nursery flowers.) There's no way this couple can be put across as realistic adults, so Trout and the actors have come up with the best way to anchor John and Helen in something approximating the real world without betraying Durang's anarchic absurdism.

Thompson's John is innocent and malleable; Rankin's Helen manages to be simultaneously wide-eyed and dotty, yet wily. Clearly, this mommie dearest is the deforming wire hanger on the family coat rack. How lovely that this play opened just in time for Mother's Day.

Kristi Loera and Nell Summers take a number of secondary roles and give them all the strength of principal characters. As the hellish nanny and a self-obsessed school principal, Loera has the pungency of leftover Easter ham, which in these circumstances is a good thing. Yet she scales back nicely as a concerned mom who witnesses Helen's insanity at work in a neighborhood park. Summers, similarly, switches smoothly from the loopy child-playing-adult kidnapper in the first act to a series of more serious characters in the second half.

Durang has spent much of his career working through issues he has with his own alcoholic parents. If he is, as the title of one of his other plays suggests, beyond therapy, he at least puts his frustration to good use. Good, that is, if you don't mind that Baby With the Bathwater leaves a nasty ring of psychic scum around the theater.

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