Dramas about parents and their children are nothing new to the entertainment canon. On television there's currently a long-running, acclaimed drama called Parenthood that deals with the subject matter, as did The Cosby Show, Leave it to Beaver, and so on; in theater, it ranges from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Matilda the Musical. How refreshing, then, that the young playwright Daniel Pearle has found an intriguing way to tell a story about two parents and their young son in a way that has not been explored. The result is a flawed but otherwise accomplished drama called A Kid Like Jake, now making its premiere in a sumptuous production at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater under the direction of Evan Cabnet.
Jake is four, and he's everything parents could want: smart, inquisitive, and precocious, with gifts for art, and a wild imagination. He's also enamored with Cinderella and wants to dress as Snow White for Halloween. For his parents, lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mom Alex (Carla Gugino) and therapist dad Greg (Peter Grosz), these are just childhood flights of fancy, until the couple begins to see how their son's struggle with gender is harming him in ways he doesn't have the verbiage to express.
How they deal, amidst Jake's private-school application process, forms the heart of this frank and refreshingly untidy look at contemporary parenting. In the tradition of the Greeks, most of the action takes place off stage: Jake is never seen and we only hear about incidents described by his parents and preschool principal (the dignified Caroline Aaron). Usually the phrase "show, don't tell" comes into play, but through Pearle's vivid, wrenching dialogue, it's as though Jake is right there in front of us.
Alex and Greg both want what's best for their son, but like most if not all parents placed in this situation, they don't know exactly how to react. Is it the result of stress stemming from interviews at schools like Dalton and Trinity? Should they put him therapy? Should they ignore it and hope it goes away? There are no easy answers, and most importantly, Pearle doesn't pick sides. Alex and Greg are equally flawed, equally confused, and equally at wit's end. In short, they are human, and as played by the nuanced Gugino and Grosz, these parents register as such in the best discomforting degree possible.
A thoroughly naturalistic work with a versatile set by Andromache Chalfant, the play derails right after the climax when Pearle takes an unnecessary detour into a dream sequence between Alex and her nurse (Michelle Beck) that attempts to make things right. It is the only time you see the hand of director Cabnet, whose work, up to that point, has been thoroughly invisible. In a play that is so striking for not taking the easy way out, this attempt to tie a bow is especially frustrating.
Still, we can forgive Daniel Pearle. A Kid Like Jake proves he is a playwright to watch for.