So, yes, itís a play about a play about a play - and there may actually be even one more level in there. Got that? If not, donít worry. Love Child, which has just opened at New World Stages following a late-night run at Primary Stages last year, is a cinch to follow even given its layers of layered layers. Jenkins and Stanton, operating under Carl Forsmanís direction, bring crystalline clarity and impeccable comic perspectives to their parodically muddy narrative, making it a fascinating journey to watch. Whether itís one thatís worth taking, however, is a different question.
Jenkins and Stantonís creativity is undeniable. Theyíve cannily aligned all the proper threads that link the not-quite-young actor Joel (Jenkins) with his beleaguered performing troupe, his agent-mother Ethel (Stanton), and her sister Kay (Jenkins again) across a fateful performance of Joelís play, which resets Ion at the Apollo Theater during a taping of The Delphi Sanchez Show. Joel doesnít know that a casting director is scouting him that night for a major role in a surefire TV series, so he doesnít know how wrong things might actually be going when they implode time and time again.
One actor is drugged. Thereís an oily spot on the floor that everyone keeps slipping on. And the grandstanding diva playing Delphi is content in her own little world, even though everything is collapsing around her, both onstage and off. Each of these characters and more are precisely defined and utilized, all playing some key role in Joelís discovery of his true lineage and himself.
And Jenkins and Stanton play them for all theyíre worth. Stanton is a hoot as the Latina, show-off Delphi, and the veteran actor who knows more than heís telling about Joelís family history. Joel is basically the easily panicked straight man (literally and figuratively) around whom so much wackiness revolves, and Jenkins plays that satisfactorily enough, but he also dazzles as the dotty older Kay, a lead candidate for The Worst Audience Member Ever. And whether Stanton and Jenkins are regressing back some 40 years (in an flashback to Joelís babyhood), looking offstage at a pair of hilariously harried stage managers, or sorting through the parental confusions at the center of the two storiesí intertwining plots, both men keep it effortlessly and enjoyably (and barely) under control.
Even at its best, however, this is a no-meat feast. Part of the reason the original Ion isnít better known is because it lacks the conceptual sharpness of the best Greek tragedies and comedies, so a play about it is somewhat hampered from the get-go. And without all the stateliness and omniscient weight the presence of the gods provides, keeping the story from fluttering away in the thin air of its own absurdity is practically impossible. There are also some serious tone problems: The set (by Neil Patel), a hodge-podge of theatrical elements suggesting a community theatreís scene shop, looks far too heavy and imposing for whatís so often so lighthearted a lark; and a new ending since Primary Stages extracts the very few puncturing teeth the original incarnation had.
Talented as they are, neither the writer-actors nor Forsman can overcome that. Nor can they dispel the general sense of pointlessness pervading the production. The story is so slim and, at least until its last 10 minutes, so disconnected from emotion that it needs some enlivening twist or, better yet, the fiercely uninhibited wildness demonstrated by something like Noises Off if it wants to compensate.
Love Child doesnít have that - all it has are Jenkins and Stanton. Theyíre more than good enough to carry the show most of the way there, and thereís a certain charm to be found in seeing them usher their labor of love further into the world. But theyíre not so original or so exceptional that they can convince you youíre seeing something more substantial than a shtick-heavy acting showcase, if itís as elaborate and energetic a one as youíre likely to find.