April 11, 2002

 

Baby with the Bathwater

reviewed by
Matt Cosper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more about Matt Cosper, please visit his main page.

Baby with the Bathwater, at Triad Stage this week in Greensboro, is proof that there are good playwrights and directors left in this world... and that actors are a lazy, contemptible lot... ok, just kidding, sort of. I was impressed with my first encounter with Triad Stage, and a professional production of a Durang play, but with some reservations. Don't get me wrong. This is a good production of an excellent satire on the American family. It's directed with panache and real heart, has a design concept that supports the production without imposing on it, and has some moments of real, quality acting. But, when the other elements of a production are so uniformly excellent, mediocre acting sticks out like a sore thumb. With the exceptions of Blair Sams in the role of neurotic mommy Helen, and gate city local Steve Roten as the gender confused, chronically depressed Daisy, the acting in this piece is all surface shine with no underlying substance and even a few scratches on that surface.

Let's wait a little while for the unpleasant stuff, and cover the many excellent facets of the production. The renovated Montgomery Ward building in downtown Greensboro that Triad Stage inhabits is a beautiful space. It is used well for the most part, with all areas of the ample open floor space being utilized, as well as the super-neato adjustable thrust stage. The set design marries realism, suggestive elements, and downright surreal touches effectively, inviting us into relatively normal apartment living rooms, only to unleash a rain of plush toys from the ceiling. The evening is full of such surprises. We are introduced to an apparently normal situation and then jolted by a quick splash of the surreal. This is an apt visual and sensory metaphor. Director K. Elizabeth Stevens matches this with an intuitive feeling for pace, a real understanding of Durang's deranged, quick-change style, and a striking a-symmetrical visual sense - a winning combo. The evening is a must-see simply for Steven's beautiful handling of the play's ending: an unexpectedly poignant moment at the end of an irreverent stomping.

One senses from the style that a real talent is at the helm, but something isn't quite right. The lightning fast changes the characters make require 100% emotional commitment, especially as the absurdity mounts to a fever pitch, and reason, it seems, has flown out the window. Hereís the thing: for that kind of superstylized, feverish humor to sell, the characters must be invested completely in the utter reality, and seriousness of their situation. I never believed it. Sams and Roten are notable exceptions. Sams executes a tour de force transformation throughout the evening from mild obnoxiousness, to neurosis, to dementia, and finally into a heartbreaking shell, observed only in silhouette. Having seen Roten in The Rocky Horror Show, I knew to expect polish and style, but was surprised by the detail and subtle moment to moment playing in his work. Also impressive in his and Sams work was what seemed to be an... I know it may sound surprising... honest emotional connection! This was a welcome treat among the extended Woody Allen impressions, roaming dialects, and straight up empty ham that other cast members turned in. Interesting and innovative staging thatís executed in a manner that screams caricature: disappointing, to say the least.

Beyond all that, Durang is a brilliant writer, and his work is hard to mangle. Luckily we have a talented director, an excellent design team, and a few rays of hope among the actors to make this a worthwhile, bitingly funny, and ultimately touching look at family. We are offered a twisted look into that most primal of things... the family. Family is what has the first and most lasting influence on us, it behooves us to question the family unit, our own experience with it, and how we can escape the often damaging effects it can have. Triad Stage is fulfilling the place any quality regional theatre should: it gives us the chance (until April 21st) to examine these human issues, and it gives it to us with humor and style.

Matt Cosper, April 11, 2002

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