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|A CurtainUp Review
The Year of the Baby
By Les Gutman
When Willie Nelson wrote the lyrics, "What goes around comes around," he showed us that the laws of karmic equation apply with the same force in rural America as in the bastions of eastern religions. It has now fallen on Quincy Long to elaborate on this notion in his quirky, inventive, alarmingly funny new play, The Year of the Baby, the thoroughly suitable work with which Soho Rep has chosen to celebrate its silver anniversary.
Birth and death, both of which are represented during the course of this Year, also conjure up notions of continuity as well as linearity. Director Daniel Aukin has turned to the music of Stephen Foster to evoke this sense in a surprisingly poignant way. And, as in Long's appealing The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite (CurtainUp's review is linked below), The Year of the Baby is also infused with lots of original song (music by Maury Loeb, lyrics by the playwright). I'm not sure why it's not being called a musical. A host of songs -- the playbill says there are fourteen in all, I didn't count -- have been skillfully woven into the story, and are performed by the cast with fine guitar and fiddle backup from Greg Hirte and Christopher Kirkman. In a time when our putative musical theater-makers seem incapable of producing anything we have much interest in hearing, this ranks as one of this show's most delightful surprises.
The set is decorated with old mattresses, its floor is covered in dirt; real dirt. (The audience has to step through the dirt to get to the seats -- a word to the wise for anyone not inclined to get their new Manolo Blahniks, or Nikes, soiled.) In one scene, we see the young couple at the center of the story lying in bed under a quilt, even though Mr. Aukin has staged the scene with the actors standing up. (Proof can be found in the accompanying photograph.) In another, the same couple discovers the fairly literal effects of the local beverage of choice, called "Bounce". These are just slight clues of what's to follow.
Like many young wives, Donna (Rebecca Soler) yearns for a child. The trouble starts when she "borrows" the neighbor's baby. As the police show up at the front door, Donna and her guitar-playing husband, Kenny (Jonathan Mark Woodward), abandon the absconded kid and head out the back door. Their escape lands them in a rundown rural motel owned by a bizarre old couple, the non sequitur spewing Luther (Joseph Jamrog) and his devil-worshipping wife, Martha (Annette Hunt). In exchange for room and board, Kenny fixes up the place while Donna stays busy trying to have a baby of her own.
Martha lost her own child, and isn't much help in the baby department. In fact, she'll figure prominently in the sorting out of karma referred to above. Out in the sticks, help having babies is hard to come by. There are no doctors or hospitals, and when Donna asks at the local store where she might find a book on the subject of childbirth, the woman (Tina Stafford) tells her at the library. "Where is that?" she asks. "Isn't any."
The woman is helpful, however, and her husband (Trevor A. Williams) knows quite a bit about birthing babies. But he's also the local mechanic and bartender, so his methods include oildrums, old Volkwagens and some "Bounce," and he talks about checking out Donna's clutch, and after the baby's born, "chopping the fuel line". It's all splendidly funny.
Behind the oddball fun, there's a lot of human nature and humanity on display here. A large share of the credit goes to Mr. Woodward, who manages to remain both innocent and honest without withdrawing from the prevailing goofiness. Whether escaping into his guitar music or his newfound duck-carving diversion, Kenny remains the play's heart, leaving to Rebecca Soler's Donna the play's thrust. She conveys a strength of (perhaps immature) will that takes her, and the play, home. The supporting cast does an excellent job of defining the curio cabinet of characters Long has concocted, and Daniel Aukin has supplied everyone with enough business to keep things rolling.
There are times when the story starts to become wobbly and diffuse, but Aukin generally has a fairly firm grip on the proceedings, reining things in before they careen out of control. There seems to be a somewhat more powerful play trapped within this one but, with all of the laughs and songs, I think you'll agree it's quite beside the point.
LINK MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite