As the play opens, workaholic attorney Judy (Julianne Nicholson) and stay-at-home dad and author Michael (James Waterston) are mid-argument about the snippy victory song their 10-year-old daughter Jessica has improvised after winning a game of Clue. Michael's furious about it and his anger's only been compounded by the fact that Judy spent an hour with the girl in her room after the familial altercation. He feels left out and worries that his wife is coddling the child.
Matters are only made worse by Judy's revelations about some of Jessica's activities outside of the house. Judy reports that Jessica has taken to "trespassing" on other people's property after school and she reveals that another parent wants to talk to them about a sexually explicit young adult novel that Jessica has lent to a schoolmate. Tensions between Michael and Judy are then simply strained to the breaking point after they've returned from meeting with Jessica's teacher, who shares some truly distressing news with them about their daughter.
Directed with brisk sensitivity by Jim Simpson, Parents' Evening unfolds compellingly in the couple's bedroom (rendered with chic sparseness by scenic designer Jerad Schomer) as layers of the couple's relationship are stripped bare. Jessica's behavior serves as the catalyst for discussions about their differing views on how to raise the child: She's fed up with Michael's penchant for spanking as a disciplinary method and he's grown tired of Judy's desire to talk things through with the girl. And as the two argue, petty complaints about trivial behaviors arise and deeper and more fundamental questions about their relationship come to the fore, particularly the animosity that both feel about the other's career path.
It's the sort of play that could prove to be a wearisome 80-minute exercise in lesser hands, but thanks to Nicholson and Waterston's meticulous performances, the piece is never less than a compellingly intimate portrait of two troubled individuals. Waterston tackles his role with impressive abandon. He thoroughly embraces Michael's neuroses, jealousy and neediness -- and yet, despite this trifecta of unattractive qualities, the actor manages to make the character warm, humorous, and even likable.
Similarly, Nicholson carefully blends Judy's businessperson intensity with her more sensitive maternal instincts, and it's Nicholson's ability to balance these two often dichotomous sides of the character that makes Judy's worries about what sort of mother she's been particularly affecting.
What is perhaps most impressive about the entire proceedings, in both writing and execution, is that through all of the vitriol and strife, theatergoers recognize the affection and love that Michael and Judy have for one another. One never questions why the two are together. So as their battle reaches a fever pitch, and as they turn on each other with concerted vehemence, Parents' Evening becomes tragically discomfiting as their marriage seems to reach a sad end.