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Taking Care of Baby

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Taking Care of Baby
Margaret Colin and Kristen Bush
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Taking Care of Baby ain’t The Laramie Project, that’s for sure. That seminal 2000 work of documentary theatre was a transformative examination of the hate crimes that led into the modern gay rights era; Dennis Kelly’s play, which is having its American premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II space, concerns itself with far more traditional topics: truth, lies, and the impossibly fuzzy boundary in between. And, uh, there’s also the minor matter of its being scripted rather than transcribed — or has it been? That mystery, as well as whether it is or even should be one, is Kelly's central conceit, a spectacular concept forever in search of an execution to match.

The most unsettlingly effective innovation here — also, for all intents and purposes, the only one — occurs at the evening’s start. “The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence,” a disembodied voice over the sound system informs us. “Nothing has been added and everything is in the subjects’ own words, though some editing has taken place. Names have not been changed.” This set of assumptions established for us, we witness a story unfold about a young woman named Donna McAuliffe (Kristen Bush), who’s been accused of killing her two children, but out of love rather than malice, and who is trying to reintegrate herself into society in the tragedy's aftermath.

Later, there's another announcement: unbidden, disconnected. And it's not quite as we remember. The words are jumbled and "all names have been changed." Does that mean the rules are changing from here on out, or that they were not concrete to begin with? A third version rings as even less comprehensible and casts even more doubt on what we hear and see. Which of these is correct?

Which indeed. That we can’t know that any more than we can know Donna’s real intent or actions is the point from which everything else flows. A doctor (Reed Birney) insists Donna is suffering from a rare psychiatric disorder called Leeman-Keatley Syndrome that no one else in the medical community acknowledges. Donna’s mom, Lynn (Margaret Colin), professes unyielding support her daughter — but is her kindness motivated by motherly goodwill, or her running for political office on the platform of stopping the construction of a megamall she voted to authorize in the first place? And what of Martin (Francois Battiste), the husband Donna has left behind, or the sex-addict tabloid reporter (Michael Crane) who's profited most from the scandal?

The collision of conflicting motives, contrasting stories, and mixed-up confessionals is what gives Taking Care of Baby its heft. Keeping the story in motion, and keeping you guessing about what really happened and under what circumstances, is no small task, and Kelly has achieved it artfully, creatively, and even musically, with the percussive repetition of words, phrases, and even whole sentences combining into a symphonic cacophony that increasingly dazzles as the puzzle's complexity grows.

What Kelly is less successful at — and what director Erica Schmidt, who has otherwise staged the play with a raw economy on Laura Jellinek's elegant waiting room set, cannot hide — is the clunkiness of the construction. Fusing sit-and-recite dialogue, of the sort that fills documentary films and realty TV alike, with genuine scenes that illustrate the words' impact is a good idea. But as rendered here, the components don't naturally blend or interact with each other, forcing the two halves of the play onto separate evolutionary paths that ultimately fail to converge.

Kelly's further addition of "himself" as a character (heard only as a voice — he does not appear onstage), questioning people about events or their emotions, is roughly handled, and comes across as a device for making specific points he couldn't figure out how to dramatize. The first act closer, for example, in which Lynn tries to comfort a shrieking Donna while simultaneously trying to eject “Dennis” from the scene, is particularly contrived. And the more “Dennis” pushes the story along — and in his interviews with Donna and Martin, he’s pushing incredibly hard — the less effortlessly the suspense comes, which leads the crucial parts of the second act to deflate instead of explode.

At least Bush and Colin are constantly pumping excitement into the proceedings. The former is bewitchingly distant throughout: At once cool and passionate, Bush never betrays whatever it was actually happened (if even Donna knows), and speaks with an overtone of terror that easily brands her character as alternately woman and monster. Colin, crisp and businesslike, lets loose even fewer secrets, and is mistress of the politician’s mien she must wear most of the evening: One of the play’s biggest thrills is watching her shift from one position to another, whether about her campaign or about Donna, and trying to apply what you learn into a consistent psychological portrait of what drives Lynn.

The other members of the company — who include Amelia Campbell as the doctor’s wife and a buxom waitress, Ethan Phillips as Lynn’s campaign manager, and Zach Shaffer as a competing scheming politician — are excellent as well. Worth special mention, though, is Birney, who devastatingly depicts the effects of trying to maintain illusions under the crushing weight of contrary evidence. When Donna and her ailment come under withering criticism, you see the doctor strive to stay focused and stay convinced of the facts (or close approximations) he's clung to. And being forced to face other possibilities, he does not react well.

"The key to treating Leeman-Keatley is teaching people that truth is relative," the doctor intones at one point. He stops, thinks for a moment, and then corrects: "I mean, it isn't. But we have to think that to live, don't we?" A more concisely muddled description of Kelly's work here you won't find, and the playwright is at his best when he's encouraging that kind of confusion rather than trying to manufacture uncertainty and emotion rather than letting them evolve naturally from the setup. Merging a documentary and a drama usually ends up with something more than either and less than both, a fate that Taking Care of Baby doesn't avoid as often as you wish it would.


Taking Care of Baby
Through December 8
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: manhattantheatreclub.com