Jeff Binder, Jordan Gelber, Kate Blumberg, Peter Benson, and Maggie Kiley in Birth and After Birth
(© Monique Carboni)
Jeff Binder, Jordan Gelber, Kate Blumberg, Peter Benson,
and Maggie Kiley in Birth and After Birth
(© Monique Carboni)
"What the hell was that?" I overheard someone ask following Tina Howe's Birth and After Birth. It's a good question, one that I think many people were pondering as they exited the Atlantic Theatre Company production. While Howe's absurdist take on parenting contains some funny moments, it ultimately proves to be both puzzling and tiresome.

The play, which Howe first wrote in 1972, begins on the morning of Nicky's fourth birthday. Nicky is a big baby -- especially as played by adult actor Jordan Gelber. He's wantonly destructive, disobedient to his parents, Bill (Jeff Binder) and Sandy (Maggie Kiley), and has a short attention span. Mom and dad aren't exactly model parents; they alternately coddle Nicky and verbally or physically abuse him. In the second act, the immediate family is joined by Sandy's cousin Jeffrey (Peter Benson) and his wife Mia (Kate Blumberg), a pair of childless anthropologists who study poor children throughout the world. They stop by for Nicky's birthday party.

Howe frequently has the characters speak in overlapping monologues to illustrate their disconnection from one another; they appear lost in their own private worlds that no one else can comprehend. At times, these sequences are awkward in that it's obvious when an actor is waiting for someone else's line before continuing his or her own speech. As the play progresses, Howe's script gets stranger and stranger. One of the more memorable passages concerns Jeffrey and Mia's visit with the Whan See, a primitive tribe that practices "fetal reinsertion" so that the experience of motherhood can be had again and again. Disbelief gives way to horror as Mia describes the process in grotesque detail.

The play might come off better if the performances weren't so uneven. Gelber, last seen in Broadway's Avenue Q as wannabe comic Brian, captures the annoying traits of a rambunctious toddler but really shines when he breaks from that mold to do or say something seemingly incongruous with his age, such as play the cello or imitate a succession of presidents. Blumberg does some very nice work, especially when describing her time with the Whan See.

On the down side, Binder -- last seen dangling from a rope in The Lieutenant of Insihmore -- acts Bill's more serious moments well but overdoes the character's agitated mannerisms. Kiley plays all of Sandy's intentions on the surface, but that could be because the role itself has little depth. For the same reason, Benson is unable to achieve much variety in his performance.

Takeshi Kata's set mixes elements of the outdoors -- tree branches, a painted backdrop of sky -- with a domestic interior, creating a surreal effect that is fitting for the show. Obadiah Eaves' sound design subtly sets the mood, particularly through his inclusion of ocean waves and seagulls that only Sandy seems to hear. Josh Bradford's lighting and Bobby Frederick Tilley II's costumes are also positive contributions to the production.

Director Christian Parker keeps the farcical action moving at a quick pace and includes some fun stage business, such as a magic trick performed by Nicky. However, much of his work does not serve to illuminate the script. While Howe's apparent goal is to satirize and expose the dysfunctional dynamics of contemporary parenting, her message is muddled.