Abingdon Theatre Company presents a hand-wringing comedy about the hell that is getting into millionaire preschool.
Hundreds of New York City families pay in excess of $40,000 a year (roughly on par with elite universities) for preschool tuition — for a single 3- or 4-year-old child. That shocking figure is never far from our minds in J.B. Reich's Cut Throat, a play about the ruthless admission process at Manhattan's most elite private preschools, now making its world premiere at Abingdon Theatre Company. Sheer economics would seem to limit interest in the subject, but if you just can't get enough of the angst-ridden travails of New York City's one percent, Cut Throat is a highly entertaining comedy.
It centers on Amy (Sarah Sirota) and Ben (Eric Bryant), two busy parents raising their 3-year-old son, Charlie, on the Upper West Side. Any is convinced that the key to Charlie's future success lies in selecting the right preschool. "Once he's in preschool he's got a shot at a first-tier grammar school and then a first-tier high school and then with a little luck and some brains, a college," she schemes, "an Ivy league college preferably — Harvard, Yale, Princeton — in that order." Ridiculous as it sounds, she's not off-base in her perception of how the strata of society are forged. Charlie is not just applying for admission into glorified babysitting, but acceptance into the Brahmin caste of our republic. The friendships forged over finger-painting could very well determine who makes up the future American aristocracy: It's now what you know, but who you know.
Ben is skeptical: Both he and Amy went to public school and they still ended up in the highest tax bracket. Couldn't Charlie conceivably do the same? "It was different back then," Amy retorts, betraying her belief in how calcified social mobility has become. For the next 90 minutes, we follow these two nervous nellies through the applications, "play dates," and parent interviews meant to separate the 3-year-old winners from the 3-year-old losers.
Reich's dialogue is sharp and witty, with a natural comedic rhythm. Under the zippy direction of Mark Waldrop, it feels a lot like a sitcom: The situations are over-the-top, the portrayal of New York is fancifully heightened, and we're never more than four or five lines away from a laugh. The actors dash on and off Brian Dudkiewicz versatile set (storage blocks on a floor of brightly colored interlocking foam mats) for short scenes highlighting every aspect of the preschool admissions process. Sound designer Ian Wehrle sets the mood leading into each moment: Mozart's Requiem before a big test, Klezmer before a chat with dad. It feels very much like watching television in the 1990s. Also, like most sitcoms of that era, the supporting characters are much funnier than the leads.
Susan Cella, Melissa Teitel, Adam LeBow, and Allen Lewis Rickman play multiple roles, rounding out the Shakespeare-size dramatis personae. Rickman is hilarious as Murray, Ben's stereotypical Long Island father. LeBow offers a convincingly judgmental vision of Ben's gay brother, Henry, pointedly delivering one of the best monologues in the show: "You don't get to march down Broadway with a stroller the size of a Humvee flattening anyone in your path." Cella brings the house down with her portrayal of Binky Fletcher, an old-money booze hound who feels like she just wandered out of an A.R. Gurney play. The costume changes will astound you (flexible and evocative costumes by Orli Nativ) as the supporting players embody the various helicopter parents, child prodigies, and clipboard fascists that make up the toddler-industrial complex.
Appropriately, Bryant and Sirota's performances feel much rounder. Bryant delivers a winning portrayal of Ben, the most relatable character in the play. He seems to have arrived at this point in life completely by mistake, egged on by a nagging wife. Yet Amy's stridency becomes almost understandable thanks to a sympathetic performance from Sirota. She only wants what is best for Charlie, although we begin to suspect that this is really all about her own game of keeping up with Tammy Glickstein (a latté-swilling frenemy played by Teitel with ghoulish panache). "She does whatever's in style," an exasperated Amy opines about Tammy. "In the '80s, she was all 'Party Girl' — snorting coke on the bathroom sink at Area. In the '90s, suddenly she's a lesbian living in Berlin. And now when being a mother is cool — she's Mother-F*cking-Earth." If such obsequious deference to trends is a bad thing, why is Amy participating?
Reich gets around to answering that question, but it takes him far too long to get there. Also, he can't quite escape the fact that he's trafficking in extraordinarily rarified problems, the stakes of which will seem absurdly low to the vast majority of viewers. Even though they're presented to us as the only "normal" people in the play, Ben and Amy are still filthy rich by all reasonable standards. You'll definitely laugh at Cut Throat, if only at the awful obscenity of the entire premise.