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Love Child

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Robert Stanton and Daniel Jenkins
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In terms of tangled plots, Euripides had nothing on Daniel Jenkins and Robert Stanton. Look at one of that famous Greek dramatist's least-famous plays, Ion. A peculiar musing on the ever-tortured relationship between humans and the gods, it wraps Apollo, a human girl, and the oracle (at Delphi) who comes between them in a web of mistaken parental identity, deceit, and attempted murder that somehow ends happily. In Jenkins and Stanton's whirlwind rethinking, Love Child, a Red Hook updating of Ion becomes the backdrop for an additional story about another son who doesn't know he doesn't know his parents, as acted out by the dozen or so actors, agents, and other theatre folk there that night - all of whom Jenkins and Stanton portray.

So, yes, it's a play about a play about a play - and there may actually be even one more level in there. Got that? If not, don't 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 Forsman's direction, bring crystalline clarity and impeccable comic perspectives to their parodically muddy narrative, making it a fascinating journey to watch. Whether it's one that's worth taking, however, is a different question.

Jenkins and Stanton's creativity is undeniable. They've 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 Joel's play, which resets Ion at the Apollo Theater during a taping of The Delphi Sanchez Show. Joel doesn't know that a casting director is scouting him that night for a major role in a surefire TV series, so he doesn't know how wrong things might actually be going when they implode time and time again.

One actor is drugged. There's 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 Joel's discovery of his true lineage and himself.

And Jenkins and Stanton play them for all they're worth. Stanton is a hoot as the Latina, show-off Delphi, and the veteran actor who knows more than he's telling about Joel's 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 Joel's babyhood), looking offstage at a pair of hilariously harried stage managers, or sorting through the parental confusions at the center of the two stories' 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 isn't 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 theatre's scene shop, looks far too heavy and imposing for what's 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 doesn't have that - all it has are Jenkins and Stanton. They're more than good enough to carry the show most of the way there, and there's a certain charm to be found in seeing them usher their labor of love further into the world. But they're not so original or so exceptional that they can convince you you're seeing something more substantial than a shtick-heavy acting showcase, if it's as elaborate and energetic a one as you're likely to find.

Love Child
Through January 3
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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