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A CurtainUp Review
Taking Care of Baby
By Elyse Sommer
Given that we Americans have our own examples of the mind boggling tragedy of children killed by their mothers, the British setting and details were not difficult to Americanize for Manhattan Theatre Club's American premiere of Taking Care of Baby. Though Mr. Kelly is hardly a fledgling playwright (Osama the Hero, Love and Money, not to mention the book for the hit musical Matilda) his play is being presented in MTC's small second stage and as part of the company's $30 ticket initiative to bring together young audiences and still unknown playwrights.
As directed by Erica Schmidt the current production works well with Laura Jellinek's simple unit set, initially just showing the actors seated next to each other on the same chairs as the audience. The main bells and whistles come from the very fine cast headed by Margaret Colin, Reed Birney, Kristen Bush and Francoise Battiste; plus a trio of dual role players (Michael Crane, Ethan Phillips and Zach Shaffer) and one (Amelia Campbell) taking on four characters. As the child murder case at the heart of the play is not a British thing, neither are the issues beyond the did-she-or-didn't she?/truth-versus-lies questions the playwright explores.
Kelly is less interested in nailing down his Donna McAuliffe's (Kristen Bush) innocence or guilt, than in how others deal with her tragedy — from the justice system to the people who exploit her situation for their own benefit. That includes Lynn Barrie (Margaret Colin), her politically ambitious and charismatic mother. . . Dr. Millard (Reed Birney), a psychiatrist looking to bolster his sliding reputation as an expert forensic witness . . . a fringe reporter (Michael Crane, adding a needed comic touch) looking for a toehold in journalism's mainstream.
And, yes, these tragedy piggy backers even include the playwright rather coyly pointing a finger at himself. He does so as the unseen voice seeking enough information to write this play. He uses Donna's estranged husband Martin (Francois Battiste) to do that finger pointing as he reads his "Dear Mr. Kelly" letters in which he expresses his outrage at Kelly's riding the coattails of his family's tragedy.
Kelly's swipe at politicians who conveniently change their positions on things vital to their constituents gets a particularly pertinent American twist courtesy of Margaret Colin's cunning and elegant Lynn Barrie (that elegance enhanced by Jessica Pabst stylish pants suits). Most of these characters are distressing examples of a Me-First mantra, especially Colin. Her chilling portrayal of Lynn devastatingly illustrates the many ways both mother love and political beliefss can be compromised.
The first part of the play when the various actors speak while seated in their chairs is rather slow to catch fire. The account by Kristen Bush's Donna of her first night in prison is poignant and sets the tone for her conflicted and hard to read personality throughout.
One of the play's most powerful scenes is when the interviewer questions Dr. Millard after his theory that something called Leeman-Keatley Syndrome (LKS) causes a heightened state of despair in new mothers about dismal world events which causes them to direct that despair towards the very ones they want to save, their babies. There isn't an actor in New York who can express emotional discomfort simmering just below the boiling point than Reed Birney. In this instance the discomfort caused by the interviewer is intensified by the presence of Amelia Campbell as the wife who joins in with the questioning as she realizes some new truths (or untruths) about her husband.
While Kelly goes after all these people, he leaves the truth or lie question disturbingly ambiguous. A second act scene in which Martin McAuliffe finally submits to an interview makes that ambiguity rather confusing and difficult to process.
But the real question we leave the theater with is whether Kelly's conceit of including himself in with those he skewers for their opportunism really lets him off the hook? Does writing a play about a terribly tragic event really serve as eye-opening theatrical muckraking?