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There's no baby -- and no urgency or life, either -- in this play about nothing

Wednesday, Dec 11 2002
"Like most of [Edward] Albee's work," the critic Robert Brustein wrote last year, "The Play About the Baby is three parts charlatanism, two parts pretension, and one part genius." The genius part is for the actors to snuffle out, like pigs rooting for truffles, since the charlatanism and pretension in Baby have such a penetrating smell.

Let's get one thing straight: The play is not about a baby. The kid is nonexistent. Albee is up to wordplay, metatheater, and musings about reality, but he's not about to give us a realistic show about a squalling, red-blooded child -- at least not after christening his script with such a straightforward name.

Two people, Boy and Girl, come onstage and discuss the alleged baby in the other room. They drip with sweet sexual affection. They moon over each other, the way young lovers do. Within a few minutes she suckles him (really), and they leave. Then a dark-suited older man strolls in, runs his fingers along the furniture, and sniffs. "Young smell," he says. The man is sophisticated, worldly, a bit catty and swish -- loaded with experience, in other words, where the young couple brims with innocence. A pearl-wearing older woman follows, and before very long the Man and Woman claim to have stolen the baby. And that -- except for a few long, obsessive speeches about giving speeches and about the nature of truth -- is it.

The young couple/old couple formula of innocence and experience should remind audiences of Albee's masterpiece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was all too realistic: In that play, a young university couple new to the academic game visits the sullen house of George and Martha, a pair of seasoned, bellowing, drunken vets. In Baby we have a newlywed house, where the Boy and Girl run around naked -- essentially Eden -- invaded by a couple of Machiavellian WASPs. Albee has chiseled his original formula down to a stylized, expressionistic piece of writing that has all the terse lines and pregnant silences of something by Pinter or Beckett, but no urgency or life. If the mysterious baby (which becomes a symbol of Christ) is what Brustein means by "charlatanism," then the stylized dialogue is what he means by "pretension."

"Feeding time?" says the boy, when a baby cries offstage.

The girl gets up to soothe the supposed child. "Stay here?" she asks.

Boy: "All right."

And so on. Albee, legendary gay examiner of straight marriage, has his specimen laid out here like a dead butterfly.

Supposedly, the play worked last year in New York. In the basement of La Val's Pizzeria, performed by the Shotgun Players, it doesn't. The genius part of Baby must lie in the timing, and Reid Davis' cast still seems unsure of how to deliver its lines. Richard Louis James and Trish Mulholland, as the Man and Woman, do better than their counterparts, if only because the ranting of a couple of desperate, childless, over-the-hill adults is more interesting than the self-involved brooding of the Boy and Girl. James is appropriately theatrical and arch, and Mulholland is especially good with the Woman's soliloquies, remembering a time when she was beautiful and loved by a suicidal painter. "His drawings of me and paintings made him, well, quite famous," she says. "I hang in museums."

The trouble is that as soon as you realize the baby is a symbol rather than a character, all the talk about it turns to dust. No amount of fervor from Brent Rosenbaum (as the Boy) or quiet sadness from Katie McMahon (as the Girl) will make us care whether the Man and Woman really do plan to make off with the kid. It doesn't help that Ariel Parkinson's set of some furniture and a few Picasso-like sketches on the wall is so minimal we can't even tell, at first, that we're in a real house and not some abstracted netherworld. Albee's abstraction is the whole problem: He's refined his play down to a Pinter-esque desert, where any spiritual struggle hinted at by the symbolism is just a bloodless head game.

Oh, well. It's been a troublesome season for Shotgun. The long delay in finishing its home theater -- a space nicer than La Val's -- has thrown the group into a tailspin. Landing a West Coast premiere of Albee's latest play should have been a tremendous coup, and in normal circumstances the company might have pulled off an entertaining (if still hollow) show. But this Baby, I'm afraid, is stillborn.


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