Playwright Tina Howe published Birth and After Birth, a gently absurdist comedy about a four-year-old’s birthday party, almost 30 years ago. But the script hasn’t matured. What may have seemed daring or poignant in the ’70s now appears childish. With countless glossy paperbacks and New York magazine articles debating the virtues of spawning, Howe’s ethnography of parental ado has all the novelty and bite of an arrowroot biscuit.
The Apples lead a typical suburban life. Daddy (Jeff Binder) frets about his popularity at the office; Mommy (Maggie Kiley) fears losing her looks; birthday boy Nicky (Jordan Gelber) recites the Gettysburg Address, speaks obscure African dialects, and plays note-perfect cello solos. Howe has previously appeared as the translator of two Ionesco plays and clearly shares his love of infusing the quotidian with the bizarre. She delights in affording the Freeds, a pair of childless anthropologists invited to Nicky’s party, plenty of peculiar tales, such as their notes on “Wahai children who speak with their elbows.”
The anecdotes amuse, as do some of Nicky’s antics. (He’s played by the sizable Gelber—a fully grown man sporting a paunch and bald spot.) Director Christian Parker elicits some fine moments, but he can’t lend the piece much relevance or enliven the numerous scenes in which characters speak in dueling monologues. Howe’s play may not deserve a time-out, but it’s only faintly rewarding to spend time in.