Kelly AuCoin and Jennifer Morris with "the baby"
Kelly AuCoin and Jennifer Morris with "the baby"
Ellen Melaver's The Right Way to Sue is a silly but surprisingly smart comedy about crazy Upper West Siders, wacky New Jersey folk, and the strange ways in which both of these tribes raise their young.

The play begins with an uproarious send-up of modern yuppie life in New York City by introducing us to Maggie and Tom, a young and ambitious couple always on the go--so much on the go that Maggie keeps losing ("leaving," not losing, she insists) her baby all over Manhattan. Her latest oversight left baby Victoria in the cheese case at Zabar's, where she was picked up and returned by a young woman named Sue. Late for a meeting, and with their babysitter a no-show, Maggie and Tom ask Sue to watch Victoria for the evening. She agrees, and when they return, they find Sue and the baby are gone; all that remains is a note reading "Finders keepers." With an ad for a hair salon as their only clue, Maggie and Tom set off on a quest to find Sue in--horror of horrors!--New Jersey.

At the hair salon they find the manager, Trina, who says she vaguely remembers this Sue and offers to drive Tom and Maggie to find her. But the dim-witted and distracted Trina keeps taking them to the wrong towns and the wrong Sues. Meanwhile, at her own Atlantic City hair salon, the surly Sue proves she is ill-equipped for child-rearing, until a polite stranger named Walter comes in for a trim and helps her out. Lots of happenings in the plot lead to revelations and a semi-happy ending for all.

The Right Way to Sue does an admirable job of walking the line between reality and absurdity most of the time, but it does occasionally falter. Anne Kauffman's otherwise fine direction takes some of the characters' quirks too far, with Caitlin Miller's Trina quickly wearing out a couple of schticky moves (though the actress herself is otherwise perfect) and Stephanie Brooke's Sue playing the role so deadpan that she seems nearly dead. The character works well at first when she's acting in counterpoint to the hurried and harried Maggie and Tom, but her subsequent scenes often drag the play down. In addition to these problems, a few recurring jokes simply aren't funny enough to merit recurrence.

Its weaknesses aside, the play's oddball examination of parenthood is interesting; Melaver uses Manhattan and Jersey as metaphors for different attitudes toward child-rearing. Tom and Maggie should be ideal parents, given that they have good jobs, a nice home and neighborhood, and are experts at planning (Maggie actually scheduled "have a baby" on her palm pilot). Yet Maggie continually loses her child, while Tom--as we learn from his phenomenal first-act speech, delivered with humorous intensity by the excellent Kelly AuCoin--is frustrated and unfulfilled in his current role as husband/father. When they travel to New Jersey in their search for baby Victoria, they encounter several parents who don't have the kind of ambition, disposable income, or encyclopedic baby knowledge that Tom and Maggie do, yet abound in simple love and understanding of their children. Fred, a loving father of 16, insists on being called "the mommy," while a woman named Suzy can decipher the details of her baby's concerns just by listening to its cry.

Melaver's satire suggests that Manhattanites are so focused on the details of child-raising that they forget their children, while Jersey parents engage in a decidedly uncultured yet limitless love; but she doesn't leave it as simple as that. There are plenty of jokes about the tackiness of New Jersey (flourescent colors and bad accents everywhere), and Melaver pokes fun at materialistic New Yorkers who take themselves too seriously, but we recognize that she is painting with broad strokes for comic effect. Beneath the usual stereotypes, humans shine through. And, as it happens, a few plot developments make everyone equal in the end, revealing that sophisticates and heathens can learn from one another.