It might be unwise to speculate on the personal experiences of Erin Courtney, the playwright whose new work, Demon Baby, has just opened at the Ohio Theatre, though the play seems to suggest that she's closely following the familiar axiom of "write what you know."
A number of the characters in her play are so stricken with depression or dissatisfaction that they are essentially paralyzed, unable to move for hours at a time while pondering the depths of their individual situations. These characters feel as though they're being tormented not only by the uncertainties and pains of life, but also an actual creature (the "demon baby" of the title, gleefully portrayed by Glenn Fleshler) pinning them down.
But while Demon Baby never gets more profound or more creative than this, its first half is at least a solid exploration of this concept and what drives people to this helpless state. The story focuses on Wren (Heidi Schreck), who moves to London when her husband Art (Patrick McNulty) is transferred there for his job. Though he adjusts to life there quite easily, she does not - as a freelance writer with little career direction and a tough assignment (creating a pamphlet for children who must relocate), she spends much of her time sequestered in their new home eating cookies and watching television.
Wren's struggle is that of anyone who has ever been emotionally and physically drained by being unexpectedly fired or undergoing a painful breakup, and that all-consuming apathy - which even causes her to become a piece of furniture at one point - is thoughtfully and thoroughly communicated by Schreck, and Demon Baby is never stronger than when she's at the center.
However, when the story shifts to focus on Art, who loses his way just as Wren finds hers, a clever idea and well-considered concept quickly grow wearying. McNulty's performance, like Schreck's, is just right, but Courtney doesn't support him or his character as strongly, shifting her focus from individual despondency to relationship turmoil without particularly effective transitions. When Art's own demon baby becomes his increasingly stifling relationship with Wren, it's difficult to feel much sympathy for him - we've spent too much time getting to know and like her. That's something of a dramatic miscalculation.
So are the show's additional characters, which are intended to shine light on the central conflict, but rather draw attention away from the Art/Wren story at its most crucial moments. The only one that feels essential is Wren's editor Alan (Gibson Frazier), who provides her with a professional (and possibly emotional) outlet she can't find elsewhere in London. While Nina Hellman is quite entertaining as Art's new coworker Cat, she and the other actors (Leo Kittay, Polly Lee, and Mark Shanahan) have thankless roles that provide them few real dramatic opportunities.
At least director Ken Rus Schmoll keeps the show well paced, and the set (by David Evans Morris) and lights (Garin Marschall) do fine work communicating the stifling (or, when necessary) freeing atmospheres required by Courtney's script. And Fleshler, who causes something of a comic ripple throughout the audience whenever he enters, is a surprising highlight, funny and annoying, but also touching, regardless of the guise in which he appears.
Maybe he's doing his job just a bit too well. Demon Baby feels like it, too, is too seldom allowed to move in the directions that would best suit it.