MODESTO — Christopher Durang's "Baby With the Bathwater" is a grim dark comedy about incredibly bad parents and their severely messed-up child.
Critics loved it when it came out in 1983, heaping praise on Durang for his satirical humor. The New York Times lauded the playwright, saying he "conquers bitterness and finds a way to turn rage into comedy that is redemptive as well as funny."
That's not the reaction I had when I attended Saturday's performance of the play at Center Stage Conservatory's Lower Level Studio in downtown Modesto. True enough, I'm probably not the best person to review this play. I'm seven months pregnant with my second child and love being a mother. The humor was lost on me. What I saw was an endless round of screaming matches, slammed doors, foul language and depictions of horrible child abuse. For me, the play was a painful experience and there was nothing funny about it.
It was evident, however, that director Megan Lynch and her five-member cast put a lot of work into the production. While the actors yelled much more than necessary, they were all competent and professional. Out of the 20 people who attended the intimate performance, more than a few did laugh at the outrageous behavior on stage.
The show begins with new parents Helen (Traci Sprague) and John (Jose Garcia) leaning over the bassinet of their new infant. Both parents are rattled by the baby's cries and tell the baby to shut up. The mom announces that she doesn't really want to be married and she wants to get a divorce. Then the couple arbitrarily names the child Daisy without checking to see if the infant is a girl.
Things go steadily downhill from there, with Daisy experiencing a depressed and suicidal childhood. Time leaps forward, and we meet Daisy again as a 17-year-old confused boy (Michael J. Malstrom). He goes through extensive therapy sessions, where he confides about his 1,700-plus sexual partners, his penchant for constantly changing his name and his severe anger toward his parents. But by the end of the play, there is hope that Daisy might be able to heal and create a good life for himself.
Sprague portrays Helen as completely insane with no redeeming qualities. She's a selfish child who would rather sleep than deal with her child or husband in any constructive way. Garcia's John is slightly more sympathetic because he experiences occasional pangs of conscience about his exceptionally poor parenting skills. Malstrom seems blank and wiped out as poor Daisy. He's been steamrolled by his parents and has a hard time standing up for himself.
Carin Heidelbach plays a spectacularly crazy nanny who believes you can spoil a baby by hugging it and that adultery and other questionable behaviors are permissible and even advisable. Heidelbach shows acting range by also playing a mother at a park and a teacher who tries to help Daisy.
Claudia Linares also demonstrates versatility in a variety of roles, including a demented mother who lost her child and a power-hungry principal.
The play might be funnier for people who get the 1970s pop-culture references that are sprinkled throughout. As examples, there are jokes about Helen writing Cliffs Notes for the novels "Scruples" and "The Thorn Birds." For me, though, the show was just a nauseating look at self-indulgent people and the destruction they create.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313.
'BABY WITH THE BATHWATER'
WHERE: Center Stage Conservatory's Lower Level Studio, 948 11th St., Modesto
WHEN: Through Feb. 10; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission
INFORMATION: (209) 846-0179
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