Christopher Durang has a master’s degree in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, which is impressive enough — but along the way, he must have gotten a lot of hard-won training in linguistics. Vowels, he seems to have determined long ago, are the premiere instigators of human speech.
“Laugh-laugh-laugh,” a Woman exhorts the audience in Durang’s Laughing Wild. “Laughter is a tonic. So forget crying. Cry and you cry alone. Laugh and you… cry alone later.”
“It’s just that I was drinking one coffee and liking it,” says Vanya in the Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, “and then suddenly there’s a different cup of coffee, and I’m liking it slightly less.”
Then there’s Helen in Diversionary Theatre’s current Baby with the Bathwater, whose “Cooooo. Kuuuuuum-quaat. Kuuuuuum-quaat” pretty much drives the point home. Open-faced vowels fly all over the place in Durang’s dialogue, almost as if he relies on them as a tool for character development.
So go the exchanges in this production of Bathwater, a remarkably good piece of theater and a scathing editorial on the vagaries of lousy parenting. While it’s true there’s no definitive manual for child-rearing today, there is such a thing as parental instinct, which ideally (nay, handily) trumps Dr. Spock and his legion of wannabe authorities. The problem is that trendy new parents Helen and John haven’t a clue what that is, and as a consequence, they almost literally throw their little Daisy under the bus.
Think the parenting gig is tough? As the highly vowelar and darkly absurdist Durang sees it, childhood is exponentially harder.
Helen and John Dingleberry, after all, can’t even name the baby, let alone determine its gender or comfort it when it cries. Enter wispy Nanny, whose child-rearing savvy is as scatterbrained as the parents’, only making things worse. Nanny and John will do the nasty in due course; Helen will leave John and take the baby, only to return in five minutes; and the boy, now named Daisy, takes to running in front of busses. He’ll manage to complete a freshman essay on Gulliver’s Travels, but it takes him five years to do it — now a dress-clad young man, he’s an absolute mess of a human being, facing interminable therapy amid his rage and sadness.
Miraculously, and amid almost no foundations for traditional growth, Daisy marries and has a kid himself, determined to sidestep Helen and John’s ineptitudes. The sins of the grandfather, he’s declared, don’t stand a chance.
Listen as John and Amanda Sitton’s Helen punctuate the dialogue amid their ignorance and pain, with Durang the ideal linguistic engineer.
For the most part, Durang joins in the stream-of-consciousness fun at Daisy’s expense, exploiting everything from Helen’s and John’s consummate neuroses to Daisy’s penchant for playing in dirty laundry. Only when Daisy gives voice to his maladjustments does the playwright back off in a show of abiding respect for his central character and the unimaginable strides he’s made despite his troubled past. The dialogue assumes Durang-specific texture and tone, its oohs and aahs culminating in a hilarious scene that catches a drunken John (Kevin Mackey) futilely trying to spell delirium tremens, vowels and all. Listen as John and Amanda Sitton’s Helen punctuate the dialogue amid their ignorance and pain, with Durang the ideal linguistic engineer.
Shana Wride makes an excellent faux Mary Poppins, with her exaggerated smiles and glowers as the occasion dictates. Kailey O’Donnell provides good color in a series of smaller roles, not the least of which is that of Cynthia, who’s looking to kidnap baby Daisy after her (Cynthia’s) dog eats her own newborn.
And give it up for J. Tyler Jones, who nails Daisy with one hand tied behind his back. Daisy is a finished product when we see him as a young man, which means Jones didn’t have the luxury of evolving into the role. Yet there he stands, the perfect merge of resentment, rage and restraint as he nurses his mounds of scar tissue in unimaginable ways. Clearly, Daisy is Durang’s hero; by extension, Jones crafts a heroic performance amid Andrew Oswald’s heads-up direction.
I love Kristen Flores’ set design, not for what it does so much as for what it doesn’t do. Chalk-laden scrawls of a mommy, a daddy, a dog, a bus and other fixtures speak for Helen and John’s cretin existences; no embellishment is necessary. The rest of the tech is fine, buoyed by Durang’s penchant for the legato in his language.
Durang takes some heat for not knowing when to quit; his screeds on parenting, the Catholic Church, homosexuality (Durang is gay) and other issues have him pigeonholed as a writer who shoots first and asks questions later. It’s true he’s hauled out the heavy artillery for Baby with the Bathwater, but it’s all in the interest of making the world safe from the likes of the Dingleberrys. Sometimes, you have to sacrifice a few lives to save one.
This review is based on the matinee performance of March 1. Baby with the Bathwater runs through March 29 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $35-$50. (619) 220-0097, diversionary.org.