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A CurtainUp Review
Jordan G. Teicher
It begins promisingly enough on what seems like an ordinary evening in the Jenkins-Laurence household. Tamara (Tara Westwood)— pony tailed, disarmingly severe and very pregnant— is preparing dinner in their Park Slope apartment. Her son Ben (Michelle David), small and bespectacled but bloated by assurances of his own exceptionalism, practices Vivaldi on the violin. His father Martin (Andrew Blair) arrives from work. The attitudes presented in this nightly routine alone are enough to serve as a blistering send-up of helicopter parenting, aggressive progressiveness, and New Age mumbo jumbo. David, bending her age and gender as Ben, perfectly captures the insufferable precociousness of the excessively nurtured. Westwood, meanwhile, is spot on as the self-righteous Tamara.
And then Tamara goes into labor. What emerges is a bouncing baby, uh, something. Sprouting increasingly lengthy and leafy branches where arms and legs should be and crowned by a Cabbage Patch Kid-style bonnet, baby Beatrice is a hilarious anomaly. The mystery surrounding her appearance and the determined nonchalance with which this "creative soul who marches to her own drummer" is accepted into the family is one of the most ridiculous and gracefully handled situations in the play.
If only the rest were as subversively subtle. Unlike some of the more exaggerated real-life residents of Park Slope who can't grasp their own inanity, the Jenkins-Laurence clan seems, more often than not, gleefully self-aware. The effect is something like spoiling the butt of one's own joke.
The introduction of Ben's teacher, Belinda (Marguerite Stimpson), into the action does little to correct this. She could have served as a much-needed "straight man" to contrast the over-the-top Jenkins-Laurences bit instead she becomes yet another cartoon character when she clumsily embarks on an affair with Martin. Stimpson does her best to sell the hapless and cloying character, but in a play otherwise grounded in specific cultural archetypes, Belinda seems out of place.
By the time the careful architecture holding together the buttoned-up Jenkins-Laurences has inevitably come crashing down, the play itself has veered off course. Whether it's a sex scene that begins with a dance to Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass," or a fight scene rife with juvenile strikes to the groin, moments of sheer silliness effectively dismantle the power of the social critique at the heart of Branched.
Left to their own devices, the Jenkins-Laurences could have made the case for their own ridiculousness. It's disappointing and slightly ironic then that nature wasn't allowed to take its course.