Christopher Durang has a lot to say about parent-child dynamics in Eclipse Theatre’s production of “Baby with the Bathwater.” Parents always mess up their kids, but it’s rare you will encounter a play where parents so soundly and profoundly embrace the absurd while exercising their own squeamishness at raising their child. It’s a miracle, frankly, that Durang’s script has held up over the years, that its story of a child robbed of his sense of self by parents who insist on dressing him as the opposite sex does not read as out of touch and offensive in 2019. Most of this comes down to the playwright’s work and the designers’ skills, unfortunately, rather than the performances or the director’s touch.
Helen (Elise Marie Davis) and John (Tyler Anthony Smith) refuse to check the sex of their child upon birth, but are also trained to shout at their crying baby by an uncouth and — to put it kindly — free-thinking Nanny (Jamie Bragg), who may or may not have been sent by the hospital to help them adjust to new parenthood. The two long to divorce at various points in the play, and as their child grows up to be called Daisy (Jose Cervantes), and longs to forge connection with others, including his girlfriend Susan (Susan), the parents struggle to allow him to be himself.
Director Derek Van Barham understands the material he is working with, encouraging performers like Bragg to knowingly wink through their committed chicanery. Smith is particularly strong at building Durang’s ridiculous beats to high tone crescendos. But the pacing of Van Barham’s production is far too slow, allowing the audience time to think about what they are witnessing, and rather than laugh at the over-the-top shenanigans, we begin to seriously consider the abuse being endured, and the comedy turns tragic before Durang intends.
The design of this production is well-considered and smart. Matt Sharp’s lights emphasize the cartoonish nightmare being endured, and Uriel Gomez’s costumes embrace candy-colored sixties fashion, highlighting how often the past can be washed in brighter hues to become more palatable for those controlling history. And Samantha Rausch’s scenic design nicely turns the parents’ home into a nursery, half-organized and half-disheveled, making the psychic torment apparent to everyone who visits.
If it moved faster, and everyone displayed the acuity for Durang’s cutting humor, this production of “Baby with the Bathwater” would be a true achievement. As is, mostly it left me relieved that something I once enjoyed hadn’t become dated and hardened and useless over the years.
Show: “Baby with the Bathwater”
Company: Eclipse Theatre Company
Venue: The Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Avenue)
DICE RATING: d4 — “Not Worth the Time”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Script and design save this show from obscurity and pain.