So, a playwright is about to become a father. He ruminates on the subject. He wonders how prepared he is for fatherhood. He talks to his wife about it; they debate various aspects of child-birthing and child-rearing. He talks to his friends about it. He listens to them, even to the one who tells him he never listens to other people. He quibbles over points of language with them. He talks to his ex about their past, and to his father about his childhood. No doubt it’s all very interesting.
It would be interesting, at any rate, if written down in a book. Meditations on Fatherhood, by A Male Parent. You could pick it up, read a few pages, and put it aside till you felt like reading a little more of it. But why should it be a play, when nothing about it compels or sustains dramatic interest?
The apparent answer is that the author is known as a playwright, which to his mind, though not to mine, encumbers him with the social obligation to write plays. Hence we get Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Knickerbocker (Public Theater), a play that isn’t, particularly, a play. Sherman has written some interesting plays, including the notable Sophistry. He writes intelligently and sometimes movingly; he makes his ruminations sound sufficiently like human conversation for actors to perform them appealingly. He creates a sort of structure by casting his play as a series of conversations held in the hero’s favorite restaurant, where the service is apparently so laidback that no waiter appears until it’s time to symbolically pay the check at the end.
But nothing in the event resembles a play, despite Sherman’s and everyone else’s efforts to make it seem like one. Bob Dishy, grumpily compassionate, gives reality to the hero’s brainy, captious father. Zak Orth has fun with the role of a geeky, self-indulgent friend; Ben Shenkman invests another friend, already a father, with amusingly dour voice-of-experience condescension. Angular Christina Kirk, pinging her sharp-edged lines like an expert knife-thrower, gives zest and color to the shadowy character of the ex. Mia Barron, as the wife, sweetly traces the increasing roundness of frame and spirit that comes with pregnancy. Even Peter Ksander’s set turns the picture frames on the restaurant wall into projection screens between scenes, apparently to make the audience feel that something other than the natural progress of life is moving as the static event goes on.
But no motion occurs. The people have so little substance that you wonder why Sherman bothered to give them names—it would have been far simpler to call them His Wife, His Father, The Best Friend, and so on. In lieu of a character trait, or a goal, Sherman supplies his surrogate with a “cute” occupation: Instead of a writer, the hero is a “record manager” for the Guinness Book of same. “You have a dream job,” his ex tells him. One wonders in whose mind it would be a dream job to sit all day at a laptop, scanning Google and Nexis/Lexis, trying to sort out who actually drank the most pints of stout in a 24-hour period or scored the most touchdowns within the last two minutes of play in a single season.
Well, to each his own. Sherman comes across as a decent, well-meaning fellow, not incapable of wisdom. Though his hero seems an immature ninny (Alexander Chaplin’s colorless playing doesn’t help), an author is never merely his hero but always the sum total of his characters. Sherman’s play does no active harm, unless you happen to have better things to do with your time. I spent much of mine pondering the more interesting questions that Knickerbocker raised: Why would the Public, given the thousands of scripts it gets offered, choose to produce this one? Why, having done so in its Lab series, would it open the work for review? And why—the biggest question of all—would a playwright and a theater as intelligent as these settle for such smallness when both have proved themselves capable of so much more? Retrenchment is fine for budgets, but sheer hell where artistic ambitions are concerned.