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Baby with the Bathwater

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Victor Verhaeghe, Anna Fitzwater, and Karen Culp.
Photo by Randy Morrison.

Breeders, you may want to rethink the certainty of your parenting skills or your worthiness of having offspring at all after you've witnessed the child-rearing debacles in Ground Up Productions' (which also produced People vs. Mona at the Abingdon Theater this past July) staging of Christopher Durang's Baby With The Bathwater. In a world where the moral seams have come apart and everyone thrives on running amok, it's hard to put a lock on anything, including the gender of your baby and how to keep it alive long enough for it to grow into an adult who frequents the shrink's office. But there's hope for the hug-deprived and for those who were exposed to crazy in their formative years: you can still have a semblance of a normal life even if you started with anything but.

Set in New York, the show opens with glaring bright light by Travis McHale, and a be-spotted, colorful set created by Robert Monaco to resemble a baby's paradise. There is a bathtub that doubles as a bed in the living room, which not only suggests their lowly means, but that they reside in a prewar downtown apartment. Of course, the best explanation is that this family is just psychotic. There are no feelings of comfort and joy to accompany the child-inspired visuals. Instead, the spots bring an unsettling haziness and hypnosis to mind. Furthermore, we soon learn that the poor infant's home is more like the antipode of heaven. Parents John (Victor Verhaeghe) and Helen (Karen Culp) Dingleberry first appear to be a nauseatingly happy couple, doting on the newest member of their family. Before a good sense of their characters are established, they morph into squabbling, hate-filled New Yorkers who are too daft to know what the sex of their baby is, much less how to care for it. As Helen, Culp seethes like a teed-off debutante, ripping into Verhaeghe's hapless sap John with venom until Nanny (Anna Fitzwater), a Mary Poppins-like childcare provider shows up just in the nick of time to restore order. Or so they think.

Nanny is full of pearls of child-rearing wisdom and tips, but her advice and presence is laced with mild violence and insanity. She is the symbol of an overturned nursery rhyme, bringing her own brand of tough love and gentle scares. Fitzwater commands the stage in the role, adding hysteria to an already manic situation, but also changing its tone. She is comfortable in her sauciness, and fits nicely between the screaming couple. Somewhere between being yelled at and soothed, referred to as various foods, slammed into the baby carriage and being kidnapped by a poor, unfit mother named Cynthia (Gina Restani), the baby manages to be self-absorbed enough to be depressed. The depression blossoms into malaise and promiscuity as the child grows into an adult, facing the ridicule associated with gender confusion and dealing with its under-developed emotional muscles. As the years go by, the parents meet other strange characters, all very vocal about the principles of parenthood, and all foolishly confident in their own performances.

Everything is exaggerated in the Dingleberry world, from the oversized, Flintstone-style pieces of meat to the amplified acting. The performances all exist on one hyper plane, and unfortunately the audience can't get off it until the closing scenes where the terrors that the baby suffered in its early stages are fully realized. Verhaeghe goes from the pseudo straight man to lumbering around like a drunken Nicolas Cage without sparing the ham. Restani, in various roles, is more subdued, but occasionally falls into her own Brittany Murphy-isms. Her eyes and facial expressions, however, belie a comic talent. The consistency of the craziness, the colors of the set, and the brightness of the lights all work together to induce a headache and are exhausting. Sound Designer Ien DeNio creates a good, baby wailing soundtrack, but each time the baby is removed from its carriage, it is painfully obvious that the sound effects are attached to the carriage, and not the baby itself. The wails don't trail.

Baby With The Bathwater may be a dark comedy, but it suffers from excess, both in performance and in running time. Lessons about the fallacies of parenthood and rejecting the roles that society locks people into could have been stuffed into the first act, and it should have ended there. The second act where we meet the adult baby is a let down, and for the purposes of preserving the joke, I won't disclose his or her identity here. I will say, however, that the blame does not lie with the person who inhabits the role. It is simply a joke that goes on too long, and the punchline arrives much too late for the actor to breathe into the role. Baby With The Bathwater could be construed as if it were a public service announcement against breeding, but there is hope for the abused: suck it up, and wait until you have your own offspring to ruin. It just might be the therapy that you need to work through your own issues.

Baby with the Bathwater
Through November 17
Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 MacDougal Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, off of 8th Street
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets may be purchased by calling (212) 352-3101 or on-line at www.theatresource.org.

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