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BWW Reviews: Theatre Artists Studio Nearly Drowns BABY WITH THE BATHWATER

Censorship, psychoanalysis, and dysfunctional families all have been at the biting pen's end of Christopher Durang's satirical works. His genius lies in his ability to make us squirm, feel the pain, and yet laugh at the kooky protagonists of his plays ~ or, in his own words, to marry absurdist comedy to real feelings.

Would that Theatre Artists Studio's production of Baby with the Bathwater measured up to the challenge!

The Dinglebery's ~ John, unemployed and browbeaten and Nyquil-dependent and clinging for dear life to a refrigerator, and Helen, needy and bipolar and self-doubting and ill-at-ease with motherhood ~ are the objects of Durang's stinging rebuke of neurotic over-parenting and its dire consequences for Daisy, their gender-confused child.

In their overprotective and frantic efforts to not make their child insane, they do a pretty masterful job of producing a new neurotic. Helen proclaims that "bringing up a child is a delicate thing," but she and John handle Daisy with all the gentleness of a plow, denying him arable terrain in which to grow anything close to healthy. We recognize these parents, of course. We have witnessed the other side of neglect: the perils of doting and risk aversion. We cringe at their meshugas!

Who better to restore calm and save the day but a nanny! Durang gives us Nanny ~ not however a Mrs. Doubtfire or Mary Poppins. Nanny is the antithesis of the nurturing caretaker, relishing dissonance, lacking a moral compass since "because there is no God, everything is permitted." Her exposition on evolution and amorality is priceless. Her philosophy about kids is ruthless: "Children are sturdy creatures, they ebb and flow, children do; they have great resiliency. They abide and they endure." Not exactly Dr. Spock or Art Linkletter! This is Nanny as a cross between nympho and Wicked Queen.

Daisy proves the lie in Nanny's dictum. Enduring the travails of his early upbringing ~ exposed to a lead and Red Dye #2 toy, abducted, nearly run over by a bus, finding refuge in a laundry pile, likened to a baked potato ~ is not abiding them. (The Dude abides; Daisy does not.) There are consequences to abuse. There is none of the fire and resilience here of A Boy Named Sue! Daisy's pilgrimage to self-realization and normalcy does not come without fits and starts and recklessness. A decade of therapy may not undo the damage. Can this broken child be redeemed?

Durang has provided a story line with all the fixings and side dishes that ought to make for a painfully hilarious experience. This production, however, falls flat. The promise of these roles is not fulfilled. The fault may lie in Barbara Acker's direction or the casting or both. Here is a cast comprised of some of the finest actresses in the Valley that can't for most parts seem to find its footing. Too old for the roles of John and Helen, Debra Rich and Tom Noga are unconvincing as Daisy's parents, lacking the chemistry that is essential to make their exchanges riveting and painful and believable. Noga comes across as mildly bewildered but lacks the neurotic/narcotic/dipsomaniac sensibility his role requires. Rich can stomp and yell, but her mood shifts feel mechanical. Patti Davis Suarez renders a Nanny that is a bit too cute and fails to convey the caretaker's seditious nature.

If the first act seems a near-drowning experience, the second act shows some signs of buoyancy and recovery in large part due to the stunning turn of Markus Maes as a grownup Daisy, conflicted and traumatized. Maes has intensity, range, and authenticity and sweeps us into his quest for balance and sanity as he evolves through a decade of therapy and arrives ultimately at a destination that suggests he may at last abide. (No spoilers here as there are surprises and quirky moments that it would be unfair to reveal.)

Ashley Faulkner is the other ray of sunshine in this production, skillfully morphing from one role to another, first as Cynthia, the deranged abductress, then as a watchful parent in the park, and most commandingly, as the well-intentioned and dutiful teacher who seeks to save Daisy after reading his ominous "What I did for my summer vacation" essay. Her alarm bells go unheeded in a scene where Ms. Suarez hits the nail on the head in a brilliant and unsettling portrayal of the self-possessed and clueless school Principal, more interested in black magic and toying with her male secretary than picking up on Pringle's pleas.

I might go so far as to suggest (humbly) that had Maes and Faulkner been cast as John and Helen, we might have had a heck of a show.

Baby with the Bathwater is dark comedy. It's meant to bubble up mixed emotions, to make us cringe and wince as we wade through Durang's mirror of life ~ Durang who spares no one in satirizing the excesses of human behavior from parenting to therapy. On this opening night, the possibility of a great play was unfulfilled and disappointing.

Theatre Artists Studio's production of Baby with the Bathwater runs through September 21st.

Photo credit to Theatre Artists Studio and Mark Gluckman


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