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A CurtainUp Review
Doran uses a nominal event as a litmus test for a marriage. Just 80-minutes in length, the work explores how two intelligent adults can find themselves between a rock and a hard place when trying to balance their parental responsibilities, marital relationship and careers.
Michael (James Waterston), a novelist and Judy (Julianne Nicholson) a workaholic lawyer spend much time bickering about their young daughter's problems at school, but the real problem is in their relationship, and their attitude toward the school personnel. From the get-go thy are in fierce competition with each other to establish who is the better parent. The one thing they are in agreement about is their view of a scheduled parent-teacher meeting as a pain in the neck rather than a chance to have a healthy discussion about their strong-willed daughter Jessica (unseen in the play).
As the play opens, we see Judy sitting on a double bed littered with legal briefs while her husband Michael rants about daughter Jessica's unbecoming behavior at board games. His rant is prompted by Jessica's having followed up beating him at the board game Clue with a teasing ditty: "I won and you're dumb." To Michael's annoyance, Judy defends their daughter's right to be a happy winner. In fact, her lack of support sends him spinning into an emotional fit. Judy, a master of passive aggressiveness, remains calm and continues to organize the legal files she's taken home from work.
Both Michael and Judy have clear and immediate goals: He wants to finish his novel within 6 months and she wants to make senior partner at her law firm. But they also want to understand how their 10-year-old daughter ticks, and why things keep getting out of hand at school. They believe they are logical people and yet their domestic life has become nerve wracking and topsy-turvy. What they've overlooked, of course, is that family life seldom operates on pure logic.
Michael's suffering from writer's block doesn't help matters, though it does provide comic relief. In one scene, he tells Judy that he has a solid beginning and end to his novel, but his middle part is going nowhere ("I just have to figure out how to get Helena over to Portugal.") His realization that he's not a literary genius is a deeply humanizing moment that reveals a willing mind but a weak hand.
The Flea's intimate space is ideally suited to this story, putting theatergoers up close to the action and able to see the actors' facial expressions and body language in great detail. And both Waterston and Nicholson are well worth watching close up. They convey the rude and gritty surface, but also how that surface is lighted from within.
Helmed by Jim Simpson, a brisk tempo is kept throughout the evening and the emotion that floods the stage never gets overplayed. Simpson's has smartly kept the stage uncluttered with only a platform bed as the major prop (set design by Jerad Schomer). The simple set underscores the couple's sexual frustrations and how their sexual energies have been re-channeled into their respective careers. It's easy to see that Judy's bedfellow here is not Michael but the legal files that almost completely blanket the bed.
It is unusual that a short play like this would have an intermission. But it works well here to suggest the titular parent-teacher meeting. Arguably, Simpson might have tightened up the piece and had lighting designer Brian Aldous use a black out to indicate the meeting between the parents and teachers and keeping the audiences in their seats from the first to the final scene.
Parents' Evening's shortfall is that it moves too fast to be quite the powerful consideration of a dysfunctional marriage Doran aimed for. Maybe with all the games being played out here (both of the physical and the psychological kind), the author might have embedded a game of chess for Michael and Judy to play. But then that might be too obvious a metaphor for this stalemated marriage.