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The Play About the Baby

Philip Goodwin in The Play About the Baby
(Photo: © Carol Pratt)
Set to attend a new production of Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby at The Studio Theatre in Washington, I had hoped that the work might become clearer when revisited in performance. Now I suspect that, even upon a 20th or a 200th viewing, it would remain inscrutable.

Critics and audiences came up with all sorts of analyses of this absurdist piece when it opened Off-Broadway in 2001 after its world premiere in London and its American premiere at the Alley Theatre in Houston. For those unfamiliar with the "plot," here is a précis: An innocent young couple, identified only as Boy and Girl, apparently have a baby, but the joy of their new parenthood is obliterated by the arrival upon the scene of a jaded, middle-aged couple identified as Man and Woman. These two first say that they have come to take the baby and later say that there never was a baby at all. The play ends poignantly with Boy and Girl alone onstage, at first asking each other if they can hear their child crying and eventually convincing themselves that they cannot.

One popular theory about all of this has been that, in fact, the young couple are only deluding themselves and that their baby never existed. (Freudian Slip Department: When discussing the piece with others, I have sometimes found myself referring to it as The Play Without the Baby.) But Albee himself has confirmed that the baby is meant to be real even though we never actually see it. Even if the details of the story and their ultimate meaning remain head-scratchingly elusive, the overall themes presented here -- corruption of innocence, the often scarifying relationships between parents and their children, the blurring of reality and fantasy -- are as clear and potent as they are in so many of Albee's previous works, most pertinently Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (According to Albee, the young couple in TPATB "realize they cannot take the pain and loss of having a baby, so it ceases to be real." This points up the author's thesis that "reality is determined by our need." Ain't it the truth!)

Directed by Joy Zinoman, the Studio Theatre production is different from the Off-Broadway staging in several major respects. To begin with, the performance space at Studio is a modified three-quarter thrust setup, which makes the experience of the play far more intimate than it was at the Century Center Theatre in New York. The appropriately minimalist set design by Russell Metheny and the responsive lighting of Michael Giannitti help to focus our attention on the performances and the text. Most significantly, a whole new tone is brought to the piece by a new crop of superb actors. In NYC, Brian Murray was suave and understated as Man while Marian Seldes was wonderfully grand as Woman. At the Studio, Philip Goodwin's Man is mercurial and theatrical whereas Nancy Robinette's woman comes across as sweetly ordinary, like someone's favorite aunt from the suburbs. (The actress's garb, by Helen Q. Huang, completes the effect.) Of course, this is an oversimplification; all four of these actors are talented and sensitive enough to play both the subtle and extroverted aspects of their characters. But the balance has definitely shifted in a fascinating way.

Philip Goodwin, Matt Stinton, Kosha Engler, and Nancy Robinette
in The Play About the Baby
(Photo: © Carol Pratt)
Another distinguishing feature of this production is that, to put it bluntly, Matt Stinton and Kosha Engler give far more satisfactory performances as Boy and Girl than did David Burtka and Kathleen Early in New York. Stinton is able to play overt innocence without coming across as a green, unskilled actor, and the fact that Engler's Girl is more mature than Stinton's Boy is intriguing. (By the way: The generic names of these two characters call to mind The Boy and The Girl of the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical The Fantasticks, another loss-of-innocence play that is certainly less creepy but not necessarily less profound than The Play About the Baby.)

According to the press materials, the Studio Theatre production marks the Washington premiere of The Play About the Baby as well as the company's first presentation of an Albee work in its 25-year history. The marriage would seem to be a good one, likely to yield more viable progeny than the union of Boy and Girl in a work that, despite all of its laughs, must be rated as one of the author's most devastating.


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