“I’m not sure I know where this is going,” said the woman at intermission, “but I know I’m at Woolly.” Indeed. The distinguished American playwright Tina Howe apparently doesn’t like the “absurdist” label, but it certainly fits her 20-year-old comedy, Birth and After Birth, which doubtless is why the irrepressibly off-kilter folks at Woolly Mammoth decided to update and produce it. It’s nominally the story of a 4-year-old’s birthday party, but it’s really about the anxieties he inspires in his hapless mother, who literally begins to come apart as the day goes on.
Lee Mikeska Gardner is agreeably frazzled as Sandy Apple, who’s losing her hair (and maybe her mind) over her only-a-mother-could-love-him child, Nicky. She’s conflicted, to put it mildly, about the joys of motherhood: Her unreasonably gifted offspring (played with abandon by thirtysomething Hugh Nees, togged out in oversize Dr. Dentons) does magic tricks, plays the cello, and recites the Gettysburg Address, all of which inspire a volatile mix of pride and desperate insecurity in the maternal breast. Like many 4-year-olds, he’s tremendously self-centered and prone to unpredictable rages, which makes Mom worry about what she’s doing wrong. And to say that Sandy hasn’t mastered the careful approach to discipline would be an understatement, considering that one attempt results in the need for CPR.
Proud papa Bill (Mitchell Hébert, as a less loutish Al Bundy) is no help; when he’s not busy worrying about his floundering career, he’s obsessively videotaping Nicky’s birthday festivities, stopping only to sulk when the kid doesn’t perform for the camera. And Mia and Jeffrey Freed (Hana Kline and Buzz Mauro), an adventurous anthropologist couple who turn up in time for cake and ice cream, only mean added stress for Sandy, who’s so deep in denial about her own maternal ambivalence that she can’t understand how Mia and Jeffrey can be so enthusiastic about native children and still not want one of their own.
Howe puts the five of them through a series of increasingly extreme contortions, most of them reasonably funny and none of them likely in the real world. The high point comes when, as an exhausted Bill and Sandy trade reassuring aphorisms after a particularly taxing bout with their willful tot, Nicky pipes up with a world-weary line from Shakespeare’s Richard II: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” It’s clear in that instant that these parents are never, ever going to be able to handle this kid. He’s always going to be two or three steps ahead of them.
Sadly, that moment and the few others like it aren’t enough to make the play coherent. Birth and After Birth is apparently meant to be a spoof on the antediluvian notion that women reach their highest potential through motherhood, but it’s so unfocused that the message, if that’s what it is, doesn’t really get through. Director Howard Shalwitz keeps his actors moving in full frenzy, and Lewis Folden’s cramped forced-perspective set adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere the characters establish with their overlapping rants. But why did Howe bother to create such deliciously brittle people if she only intended to send them off in directions that don’t have any bearing on her main point? Why do we care about Bill’s job anyway, and what does Mia’s attraction to a tribal chieftain have to do with anything? Yes, it’s a farce, and sure, it’s funny, but even the most outrageous farce needs some measure of internal logic.
Even the most dated of the five Terrence McNally playlets running at Studio Theatre’s SecondStage holds together better. The Tour, first staged in 1967, is a vaguely hallucinatory trip through southern Italy in the company of the original Ugly Americans. It starts off blithely enough—“Look, dear! Peasants!”—but before long turns into a hauntingly bitter anti–Vietnam War statement. John Emmert and Rosemary Regan, gratifyingly dyspeptic as sour suburbanites abroad, find the humor and the horror in McNally’s meaty little narrative.
They’re even funnier as a pair of leather-wearing Westchester disciplinarians in Noon, a riotous 1968 sex farce that finds a mismatched group of swingers following their libidos instead of their better judgment. The real stars of the sketch, though, are Jason Gilbert, who’s hysterical as a desperately hip homo on the make, and Rhea Seehorn, who has a giddy turn as a frustrated Flushing housewife with a tin ear for French and a cheerfully compulsive desire to be degraded. Andre’s Mother, a 1988 elegy for families torn apart by intolerance about sexual orientation, seems a trifle saccharine at this remove, though Andrea Hatfield brings a kind of rigid dignity to the title role. The Wibbly, Wobbly, Wiggly Dance That Cleopatterer Did is an uncomfortably perceptive take on male sexuality and the art of the one-night stand; Cameron Sanders gives a nicely understated performance as a lonely gay urbanite, but his bedmate, Andre C. Stone, is a trifle one-note. He’s more impressive in 1988’s Street Talk, a deliberately confrontational rant about the imminent death of relevance in American theater.
None of this is stunning, and there are problems here and there. Light and sound cues occasionally misfire, and the actors often allow their performances to get too big for the space. But it’s entertaining, intelligent stuff, and the early plays in particular show McNally at his most ferociously funny. “What do you think Goethe was wearing when he wrote Faust?” asks Emmert’s leather-daddy character at the height of the Noon frenzy—“Cotton?” Even a Wagnerite would get a giggle out of a line like that.CP