The stork has a lot to answer for—a bundle of joy can occasion a mess of misery. Studies have shown that personal happiness diminishes greatly upon the birth of a child and doesn’t fully recover until the little stranger departs for college. Stacey (Sarah Paulson) and Brian (Jason Butler Harner), the parents in Mark Schultz’s The Gingerbread House, can’t wait that long: Kindergartner Maggie is “a failure”; her brother, Curtis, no better. “Weren’t we happier? Before?” Brian asks his wife. “Weren’t you prettier?” The couple have tired of Little League, cartoon shows, childhood illnesses, and macaroni art. “Which is not art,” Stacey insists.
So Brian makes a modest proposal: “Honey. I think. I think we should sell the kids.” Following a brief show of resistance on Stacey’s part, and an even briefer negotiation of fees, the couple wave the tots off to what’s either a loving adoptive family or a lifetime of sexual enslavement. Of course, their jubilance soon gives way to discomfort, and the two seek out other transgressions and distractions—an affair, a sex tape, and a new apartment with marble counters and a Sub-Zero fridge.
In 2005’s Everything Will Be Different and 2008’s Deathbed, Schultz revealed a talent for rendering everyday situations unaccountably creepy. But The Gingerbread House concerns a situation that’s extreme rather than quotidian, and Schultz seems to strain to maintain the play’s force. As the signal event happens in the first moments, the remaining 90 minutes feel far less momentous. A series of clipped, concentrated scenes follow, yet under Evan Cabnet’s direction, they never recapture the urgency of the opening.
Schultz supplies some progression for Paulson’s character, but Brian and Marco (the friend who brokers the deal, played by Bobby Cannavale) remain more or less static. Paulson is charming, if hesitant to give over to her character’s emotions. Harner and Cannavale seem typecast—the former as a weedy child-man, the latter as an unctuous tough. The scenes featuring Jackie Hoffman as Fran—a client of Stacey’s travel agency—are, however, an unmitigated delight. Fran seems to share Schultz’s jaundiced view of life’s promise: Having returned from a disastrous cruise, she complains that she’s paid so much money and spent so much time—”For what? Salmonella. And bad attitude.”