Editors' pick

The Play About the Baby

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Editorial Review

Note: Now extended through May 18.

Edward Albee's 'Baby': Cries of Laughter and Pain
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2003; Page C01

Goodwin and Robinette: Sounds a little like an upscale men's store, no? Actually, at the moment the names do signify an estimable partnership. For Philip Goodwin and Nancy Robinette go as naturally together as a pair of kid gloves in Edward Albee's mischievous "The Play About the Baby."

The tight teamwork is a very good thing, because the characters they portray -- called simply Man and Woman -- are like a vaudeville act from the dark side. Their job is to beguile and bedazzle even as they rain a hellish kind of torment on a couple of innocents: their callow counterparts, Boy and Girl. Psychological torture, in fact, is the bulwark of their act in this comedy with fangs about the blinding illusions of youth and the bitter wisdom of age.

Joy Zinoman, artistic director of Studio Theatre, where the five-year-old play is having its Washington debut, stages the work with a penetrating eye for its inherent theatricality and a deft touch for its mordant humor. If you saw "The Play About the Baby" during its lengthy off-Broadway run, in which it featured two consummate stage veterans, Brian Murray and Marian Seldes, you know that the work's pronounced nasty streak had already been keenly explored.

A little dyspepsia can be something of a relief in the world of theater, where eagerness to please is the prevailing impulse. In this instance, though, it's the right one. What Zinoman, Goodwin and Robinette uncover with their sunny production is that the work's malignant undercurrents are even more deliciously apparent when there's a whiff of charm in the air. The lighter this "Baby" floats, the more profoundly it cuts.

The fight that Albee sets up here is by design not a fair one. Man and Woman have it all over Boy (Matt Stinton) and Girl (Kosha Engler). These mysterious older people -- urbane, ingratiating -- have arrived to prey upon the self-absorbed twenty-somethings, to rob them of an untroubled sense of the world. The younger people's belief in the future is symbolized by the baby they've just had, and it is their blissfulness that the older couple is determined to destroy through some of the most vicious means conceivable. The way to parents' sense of security is through their child.

The allegorical "Play About the Baby" is calculatedly vague -- there are allusions to other paradises lost, like the Garden of Eden -- and Zinoman's spare production retains the enigmatic quality. The telegenic pink carpeting and translucent columns, designed by Russell Metheny, give the stage the look of a cosmic talk show. (The only props are chairs, and they reflect the way the play's deck is stacked: two seats for adults, two for first-graders.) The physical surroundings are a reflection of the play's studied artificiality, and they help to make clearer the dual roles Goodwin and Robinette play, as the young people's tormentors, and as our hosts.

In complementary outfits -- he in a dark suit with pink tie, she in a black dress with pink scarf -- Goodwin's Man and Robinette's Woman lobby for our affection. They talk to us directly, telling amusing anecdotes, inviting us to talk back if we would like. Why do they schmooze us and treat the Boy and Girl so callously? Are we supposed to choose sides in the struggle over the baby? Are the characters real or apparitions? The embodiments of Boy and Girl's older selves? Of Albee's ire at those unable to acknowledge pain?

The dapper Goodwin is thoroughly in his element as orchestrator-in-chief of the brutal lesson that's being taught. It's a tart and witty performance, and never more appealing than when he's playing a congenial George Burns to Robinette's flouncy Gracie Allen. And when not engaged in the peevish business of tying Boy and Girl in panicky knots, they are devilish cutups; their monologues are so polished they get applause as they exit the stage.

Robinette reaffirms her doctoral-level comic skills. She has a hilarious moment at the expense of American Sign Language; watch as she tries with no dexterity at all to interpret Goodwin for the hearing-impaired. Stinton and Engler, meanwhile, toss into the mix just the right measure of sugar. As the play's latter-day Adam and Eve, they're physically ideal; they look like the matched set, the ineffectual Hummels they are supposed to be.

"The Play About the Baby" is ultimately as savage as it is funny. At times it feels not about the people onstage but about the chasm that divides them, about the ravages of experience. The younger people are not yet able to see the encroaching darkness, and the older couple cannot abide a perspective that doesn't take loss and regret into account. In Albee's world, scar tissue, like the beat of a heart, is a vital sign to be examined regularly.

The Play About the Baby, by Edward Albee. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Set, Russell Metheny; lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Helen Q. Huang; sound, Gil Thompson. Approximately two hours. Through May 4 at Studio Theatre, 14th and P streets NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.

Please note, this performance contains nudity and mature themes.

Tickets for Tuesday, April 8 are pay-what-you-can and will go on sale two hours before the performance.