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|A CurtainUp Review
Peter Hedges seems to have revised Tolstoy's famous opening line as his creative mantra: Happy families are all alike--dysfunctional. His whole oeuvre of work reflects this bent for digging out the emotional worms wriggling beneath the surface of family life.
Both Good As New reviewed earlier in this 1996-97 and Baby Anger, start out like old-fashioned B-Movie comedies. In each a car ride sets the darker elements to come in motion. In the first, the driver is a teen daughter who adores her parents but is disgusted with middle-aged mom's desire to be good as new via a face lift. In Baby Anger a Russian taxi driver, (Robert Ari), insistently spouts homilies about the wonders of parenthood to a childless-by-choice real estate salesman (John Pankow) and his would-be actress wife (Kristen Johnston).
In both plays the playwright's quick wit and dialogue persists throughout even as the humor turns darker. In Good As New, the face lift fails to excise the unhealed scars of marital infidelity. In Baby Anger, the stork hones in on the uneager parents and they're quickly transformed into delighted parents. However, their metamorphoses from self-absorbed childless couple to doting mommy and daddy once again a jump starts a grimmer tale. When a commercial photographer, (Ben Shenkman), tells the Patersons that their little bundle of joy has that special something for a brotherhood commercial, the previous hints of their weak moral fiber become concrete. Ignoring the devil's hand behind the camera, they make the Faustian leap over the edge that separates parents who wants the best for their children and those who need those children to satisfy their own greed for psychic and, in the extreme, economic rewards.
Little Shawn's, (Carl Matusovich), career as a child model quickly becomes the show biz career his mom never had. When Shawn's fifteen minutes of fame ends she is devastated and with dad's career also in the cellar, the Pattersons move out of New York and into a hum-drum and unrooted existence. They are rescued from oblivion and economic insecurity when the sponsor of his first commercial decides their original poster child is perfect for their new brotherhood campaign. Clearly Mr. Hedges is on a multiple muckraking excursion. Besides dissecting the all too common gone-amok pushy parent he also points the finger at the corporateurs* who callously view and use individuals as marketable commodities. The indictment is, of course, an all too timely echo of even more extreme cases of corporate greed and parents going over-the-top in their worship of the great God Celebrity (i.e.--the baffling murder of the little Colorado beauty contestant). However, thanks to a truly topnotch cast and a stylishly surreal and high-tech production, this provides not just another staged behind-the-headlines TV drama, but a highly theatrical experience.
John Pankow and Kristen Johnston believably and sympathetically portray s Larry and Mary Kay Paterson. Ben Shankman gives a devastatingly on-target reading of the opportunistic photographer. The scene where he accepts a CLIO is one of the play's most affecting and satirical moments.
Carl J. Matusovich, gives a bravura performance as the "angry baby" (could be that parts of this character are easy for a child actor to identify with). Another child actor, Adam Rose, as a sick fan of Shawn's is equally outstanding. The scene between these two youngsters is at both devastatingly funny and sad.
The Patersons are jostled by a host of other characters, all played with brilliant timing and flair by Robert Ari and Linda Emons. Ari migrates from immigrant taxi driver to tycoon, to mention just two of his roles. Emons demonstrates an equal range and is particularly memorable as the ultimate stage mother from hell. When one child is fired from Les Mis she is consoled by the fact that a second child took over the part, while an offer is already pending for her as yet unborn baby. When the still not-quite-over-the-edge-of-ambition Mary Kay asks her if she isn't worried about doing damage to her children, she retorts: "Who isn't damaged? a Have you ever met a person with an interesting life who isn't a little damaged?"
Mark Wendland's kinetic sets are most effectively lit (by Frances Aronson). and the mood they establish is supported by David Van Tieghem's music and sound design and Jess Goldstein's costumes. I do think that director Michael Mayer would have done well to curb the excessive moving around of props by the actors which over intensifies the mood and keeps the audience from really getting inside the play emotionally. This bit of directorial overkill also underscores the fact that like any polemical play, Baby Anger tries to hit every base. As a result it winds up tying itself up in knots of anger that lead to a less-than-satisfying conclusion. It's also too long, by at least 15 minutes. These last complaints aside, the pluses outweigh the play's shortcomings. It's worth seeing, and a must for parents of young "Gerber Baby" cute children.
*Ed. Note. In answer to the reader who asked and anyone else who's curious, this is our own portmanteau coinage--1. Corporate Executive 2. Saboteur--in this instance of an individual's right to be viewed as a person instead of a commodity and in general, any corporate executive or group that puts profits before people.