"Gender-variant play" is a term tossed around in Daniel Pearle's A Kid Like Jake. It sounds – at least on the surface – like a technical, bloodless label that lives in diagnostic manuals and textbooks rather than in flesh-and-blood people.
Pearle's new drama, running through March 15 at About Face Theatre, is blistering in its intensity and wholly engrossing in its exploration of a marriage brought to the breaking point by matters of child-raising and child-bearing. Directed by Keira Fromm and featuring a four-person cast that will break your heart, A Kid Like Jake is the dramatic equivalent of a literary page-turner.
Fromm keeps up a relentless pace as this 100-minute drama follows two parents navigating the tragicomic, shark-infested waters of getting their son into one of New York City's most prestigious kindergartens. As Alex (Katherine Keberlein) and Greg (Michael Aaron Lindner) quickly learn, that truly Kafkaesque process is more harrowing and labor-intensive than getting into Harvard. It also opens a Pandora's box of issues swarming around Jake, the never-seen-on-stage 4-year-old who is obsessed with princesses, has no interest in trucks or sports, and who always plays the female lead during games of dress-up.
Pearle subverts expectations in his depiction of Alex and Greg. From the start, they could easily be a cliché: white, well-educated, well-off liberal helicopter parents who eat processed foods only in emergencies and avow that they have nothing but unconditional love for their son.
But their love is threaded through with complications. When high-powered preschool educator Judy (Cindy Gold) suggests that Alex pen her kindergarten entrance essays to play up Alex's gender-variant play. "This kind of strategizing, it's sickening, but I think you might be able to capitalize on it," Judy tells Alex. They're looking for kids and families that stand out. Alex reacts like a spooked pony. She won't put labels on her son, she asserts with increasing vehemence.
As discussions among Judy, Greg, and Alex grow ever more heated, Jake begins "acting out," and Pearle's dialogue shows just how vicious and cruel even the most loving couples can become when they're at odds and under stress.
"God forbid [Jake] be a little bit more aggressive than you," Alex witheringly spits at Greg. It's a piercing line that reveals a layer of bitter marital discord that has apparently been simmering for years. Kind and comparatively mild-mannered, Greg reveals surprisingly regressive beliefs in Judy's office as he explains his response when Jake asked why men couldn't wear dresses. Greg's reply – a gentle explanation along the lines of that with the exception of Scottish kilts, men simply don't wear dresses in "our culture" because "that's just the way it is" – draws a dagger of a reaction from Judy. "You didn't tell him some men in our culture do wear dresses?" she asks pointedly. Greg is left stammering as he's suddenly face-to-face with a prejudice he would have previously sworn he didn't have.
Greg and Alex's journey is further complicated when Alex becomes pregnant, roughly a year, we learn, after a devastating miscarriage. It's a development that feels a bit like piling on. Pearle's text is already packed enough without adding in the drama of a difficult pregnancy. Still, Fromm's airtight ensemble brings such a raw honesty to the dialogue that every last emotion rings with urgency.
Lindner makes Greg a wonderfully empathetic everyman. When Greg flinches at Alex's revealing barbs, you just want to give him a hug. Keberlein's Alex is equally vivid. Her ferociously protective impulse to shield her son from labels that might or might not turn out to be wrong is understandable, as is the emotional wreckage left by the miscarriage. Gold's Judy is fascinating and tough as nails, but she has a deep compassion for Jake and an ardent desire to help him get into a school where he'll thrive. Finally, there's Jessica Dean Turner as a nurse who becomes a fever-dream of significance and wisdom in a scene that skirts the borders of magic realism.
Pearle has written a taut, at times uncomfortably believable drama with A Kid Like Jake. Once that first scene pulls you in, you're rapt until the final blackout.