HORROR AND HYSTERIA are the recurring keynotes in Christopher Durang's Baby with the Buthwater: like his Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, this latest work both shocks and entertains. But unlike Sister Mary it fails to fully, combine the two. The most pointed insights in Baby are not funny, and many of its best jokes seem incidental to the main plot. Baby seems almost to contain two separate plays. The first act and initial scenes of the second provide a satire of American family life; the rest of the play deals with the problems of an individual.
The story begins with an impersonal introduction to Father and Mother, alcohol and quaaludes. In these early scenes Baby is either an object of offstage. The appearance of an actor (Stephen Rowe) to give personality to Baby (now a college freshman) marks a transition. From that point the play becomes the very personal struggle of Baby to escape his parents' nightmare. For the audience, the switch from observing objects labeled "Mother." Father," and "Baby" to watching a real person in obvious pain is harsh, a switch in genre rather than mood. Although there are several good laughts after the transition, the play is no longer a comedy. The revolting nature of the young man's situation is too convincing to be amusing.
This shift away from farce reduces all the earlier scenes, a good two-thirds of the play's to background for the real drama of the second half. In this light the play's first act is much too long and rambling; an entirely extraneous street women and her rabid dog, included purely for a few limp laughs, are only the furthest extreme of the play's meandering. The early scenes of the second act show what that first act might have been: here, the script is tight, and much more amusing.
Baby's story is fairly simple. He is brought into the world by a couple whose talent for parenting is exemplified by their belief that he is a girl, until at 15 he tells them otherwise. He is subject to fits of extreme depression during which he will lie down and refuse to move. Despite truthful seventh-grade "What I Did This Summer" papers--in which he describes Iying motionless in festering ragpiles--on one attempts to direct his aimless stumbling until his freshman year in college. It is then that the audience sees for the first time the product of this hellish existence, as he converses confidentially with the piped-in voice of a psychiatrist, and revisits and rejects his home. Although obviously still confused, he marries and starts his own family. The final image of the play is one of his bending close to his wife and first child, a reformed echo of the opening scene.
THE ACTING entirely carries the ART production. The technical effects are smoothly and artistically produced, but with only a single set and few special effects they are bound to be secondary. The best and only truly exceptional performance is Stephen Rowe as the young man, "Baby." With strong gestures and convincing characterization. Rowe makes the scenes which he spends alone on stage the play's most interesting. The one actor whom the play forces to create a truly human, complex character, Rowe manages to do so despite being saddled with direct statements about the play's theme ("Is it enough to mean well?" "Were my parents evil?").
The other four actors, most of whom play more than one role, all give strong lively performances with especially fine timing and interaction. Cherry Jones is a charming incarnation of evil as Mother: Tony Shalhoub (Father) and Karen MacDonald (several roles) appear appropriately flimsy creatures, attracting attention without abandoning their feeble personalities. Marianne Owen (Nanny/Principal) is the best comedian, but she tends to be even more overpowering than her characters are intended to be, which distracts the audience from the rest of the show.
In the context of ART at the Pudding--a self--proclaimed experiment in theater--this production is more than satisfactory. The play would benefit enormously from tightening, particularly of the first act, and a smoothing of the transition from satirical farce to personal tragedy. This production leads the script the advantage of consistently fine acting, and gives the playwright, actors, and audience an opportunity to try something new, Now is this a bizarre theater "experience" to be endured for the sake of broadening one's mind. It is funny, fastpaced, and not too long, and these virtues, rare enough anywhere, more than justify this sort of gamble.