The Play About the Baby

Donna's young, sure, but she wants a baby something awful. So she "borrows" one from the neighbors—keeping it in a newspaper-lined box and feeding it lettuce leaves. Then the police have to go and get involved, so she and husband Kenny ditch the young 'un, shimmy into sneakers, and light out for parts unknown. Arriving penniless at a near-deserted Appalachian inn, the couple win over the crusty proprietors—Luther and Martha—and settle down. Kenny helps build cabins while Donna does the laundry, and the seasons pass by.

In The Year of the Baby, playwright Quincy Long takes a simple plot—confused kids escape hometown, work hard, come of age—and sows it with tenderness and raillery. The result is stranger and more wonderful than the structure would seem to allow. A wordsmith with an enviable ear for dialogue, Long keeps his piece sweet but never treacly, edifying but not didactic. Though there's often danger when a citified playwright turns his pen to country folk, Long creates indelible characters, neither patronized nor ennobled.

The main action unfolds on a dirt-floor set, spotted with rickety plywood and soiled mattresses. Far upstage lies a small room with the look of a screened-in kitchen. Around the table sit a fiddler, a banjo player, and two singers who occasionally break into classic Stephen Foster songs ("Beautiful Dreamer," "Maggie by My Side," "Hard Times Come Again No More"). In a mode nearly opposite to these pleasant arrangements, Kenny often straps on his guitar to strum out a rockabilly number of his own design. While squabbling with Donna he sings, "His wife, she made him mad/He took his car and drove afar/And then his wife was sad."

The Year of the Baby: language instruction
photo: Evan Cabnet
The Year of the Baby: language instruction

Details

The Year of the Baby
By Quincy Long
Soho Rep
46 Walker Street
212-334-0962

Miss Lulu Bett
By Zona Gale
Mint Theater
311 West 43rd Street
212-315-0231

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The juxtaposition of the Foster songs with Kenny's compositions illustrates a salient theme of The Year of the Baby. Foster's catalog includes "Oh, Susanna," "Camptown Races," and "Swanee River"—quintessentially American popular music. But what, Long's play seems to ask, is the quintessence of American music and language today? Both Kenny and Donna use language awkwardly, a little uncertain of the mechanics of speech, reluctant to answer one another. When angry, Donna yells and stamps her feet, while Kenny tears at his guitar. Yet as the play progresses and the couple begins to truly care for one another, they learn to speak—clearly and cogently—for themselves. The last moments find them seated with the musicians, faces aglow, happily singing in harmony.

As Kenny, with his halo of unkempt hair and bemused expression, Jonathan Mark Woodward affectingly portrays the unease of a man who hasn't quite stopped being a boy. Rebecca Soler keeps saucy Donna pert and prickly, but never invulnerable. Also excellent is Joseph Jamrog as the well-meaning but increasingly senile Luther, prone to derailing dinner conversation with a "Me, I like the westerns" or a "Tom Mix was the only real cowboy." But Trevor A. Williams nearly steals the show as a manic mechanic who doubles as an amateur OB-GYN. "Gotta look under the hood to check the crank," he tells the horrified Kenny. Peeking beneath Donna's skirts, he says, "Gear box is good, yup."

Director Daniel Aukin drives the play at a gentle clip. He has a sure hand at making the most of stage space, easily delineating different locales with a largely static set. And he elicits excellent work from most of his actors, though he ought to have better steered Annette Hunt's scheming, wild-eyed Martha.


Miss Lulu Bett director James B. Nicola, though, seems to have let go of the wheel altogether. When Zona Gale's Pulitzer Prize winner debuted in 1920, The New Republiccalled it "a serious comedy of emancipation." Mint Theater's production is quite serious and most definitely about emancipation, but Nicola alternately turns a deaf ear and a tin one to the comedy. The only giggles arise when "pussy" is used as an endearment.

Lulu's a spinster mired in a joyless town, where she plays uncomplaining housemaid, nurse, and cook to her married sister's family. But when the husband's gallant, mustachioed brother arrives from the wilds of Oregon, she feels an unfamiliar flutter. After a mock wedding—which begins as a clumsy joke but turns quite somber—she finds herself unwittingly married and off upon a honeymoon. But then scandal arises and Lulu finds herself back where she began, alone but altered.

While Angela Reed acquits herself well in the title role—and Peter Davies charms as her swain—she receives little reinforcement from the supporting cast. As her ogreish brother-in-law, a justice-cum-dentist, Ed Sala decrees and deprecates with the smile of a man who knows he's always in the right. But his unrelieved pomposity grows tiresome, as does the exaggerated femininity of Valerie Leonard as his wife.

Director Nicola clearly goes in for realism—there's actual lemonade in the glasses, potatoes on the plates, and the costumes all look researched. But as he fails to elicit emotional verisimilitude, this revival is something of a still life.

At the play's end, the consciousness-raised Lulu declares, "I thought I wanted somebody of my own—maybe it was just myself." Maybe she just wanted a better production.

 
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