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A Kid Like Jake

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Carla Gugino and Peter Grosz.
Photo by Erin Baiano.

Something amazing appears during the penultimate scene of A Kid Like Jake, Daniel Pearle's new play at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center: genuine conflict. For well over an hour, two parents have been battling New York's (unseen) K-12 educational system on behalf of their (unseen) five-year-old son, with both the process and the results about as exciting as you'd expect. But their volleys of blows and bullets finally start bruising and piercing once the duo stops looking at others as their enemies.

Alex (Carla Gugino) is the mom, born of wealthy parents, who gave up the law career she hated to stay home with her son, Jake. Dad Greg (Peter Grosz) is a psychologist who works troubling hours to help maintain the family's standard of living. Whether he needs to at all given Alex's built-in fortune is an open question, but what is not is that trying to get Jake on the fast track has ripped the three of them apart, because, well, no one is quite sure who's to blame for Jake's habitual cross-dressing.

Is it that Alex has had a tendency to babysit him by way of Disney princess movies (including the one Jake most frequently emulates, Cinderella)? Or could it be that Jake has made no effort to introduce him to sports, or other masculine pursuits, in which he himself has no particular interest? All they know for sure is that Jake has been having difficulty getting into the "best" schools to which they've submitted him, and once it's become unavoidably clear that no one can provide an explanation they find suitable, there's nowhere left to turn but on each other.

Their fight begins in deafening silence, but grows in intensity and brutality to paint-peeling shrieks and screams—with tears and a good chair-kicking thrown in for good measure. Playing the more personally pained, Gugino risks overjudging Alex's rage, and toes a treacherous line between honesty and parody that she just barely avoids crossing. Grosz, on the other hand, subtly ramps up Greg's emotion from stunned disbelief to betrayal and finally pure offense, letting you see exactly what you need to: how years of abuse have finally shoved him past the breaking point.

That explosion from him is key, because it's where the real meat of the play is found. Each major character—the third we see, Judy (Caroline Aaron), is Jake's preschool administrator—has a breaking point, but no one around recognizes or cares about the boundaries surrounding it. The specific plot might concern Jake's education, but it's the pursuit of any such nebulous ideal, whether a perfect path from K to 12 or keen understanding of traditional gender roles, that leads everyone into real danger.

Unfortunately, Pearle isn't much interested in addressing that directly, which prevents you from getting too wrapped up in whether anyone finds a solution. So consumed are he and his director, Evan Cabnet, with the mere mechanics of telling the story that they forget to imbue it with exactly the flesh and blood it needs most.

For purposes of full disclosure, I'll confess that I'm not a parent. So I suppose it's possible that the endless scenes of Alex, Greg, and Judy discussing Jake's admissions applications could be riveting or moving. Or that there is, in fact, Medea-level tragedy in Jake's being rejected from certain tony schools that might guarantee him a gold-plated life before he's even really begun to live.

But what registered more for me were the peripheral aspects of these points that Pearle touched on but briefly. By dropping big hints about the parents' and the schools' politics (deeply progressive, in each case), he promises an unsettling soul search about sexual identity as filtered through contemporary identity politics that he never delivers on. And in relating Jake's increasing difficulties as more pressure is implied, with him acting out in more erratic ways the longer his "predilections" are pushed, Pearle suggests that he'll consider whether dwelling on such differences eliminates or exacerbates the problem—that too is largely scuttled.

What remains throughout most of A Kid Like Jake is dead air that neither Pearle, Cabnet, nor the actors can satisfactorily fill. Gugino oversells Alex's overprotective nervousness, almost to the point of emasculation. Grosz is more successful overall at depicting a man who's a victim of his own making, but the script eventually insists that we see Greg as far more complicit in Jake's problems than we can—this throws more weight on Alex's shoulders, which makes the evening even more lopsided. Aaron is pure efficiency as Judy and Michelle Beck finds the right warmth as a consoling nurse, but a couple of late twists don't help either turn in a consistently rewarding performance.

Staging things on Andromache Chalfant's shiny, upscale set, Cabnet has done perhaps too much to keep things under control. The show cries out for more passion and danger than he dares give it, leaving A Kid Like Jake feeling like a civilized-from-birth show that longs to shed its finery and take up residence in the jungle. But it has no opportunity to do that, and wouldn't be especially daring even if it did—Pearle hasn't crafted characters that make you care whether they ever "come around" or not. If this were 1983 or earlier, perhaps these proceedings would ignite fireworks, but as laid out today they don't merit much more than a yawn.

A Kid Like Jake
Through July 14
Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center Theater's newest stage), 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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