Picking Up The Baby
nytheatre.com review by David Del Grosso
August 17, 2006
Billed as "Part manic road trip, part riff on race relations, complete with paranoid fantasies, gospel music, bad rap, and a hoedown", Ellen Margolis's hour-long comedy Picking Up the Baby is a good piece on its way to becoming an excellent play. Gretchen, a white, single woman has decided it is time to adopt. As the only person on her agency's list who is willing to adopt an African American, Gretchen soon gets the call telling her that just such a baby is available. The play finds Gretchen on her long drive from Los Angeles to Texas to pick up the baby and though the agency has given books and sensitivity videos to prepare her for interracial motherhood, her anxieties begin to assail her. She spends much of the play on the phone with her brother Nick, who is trying to keep her calm. As her drive stretches on, Gretchen's worries become delusions, taking the stage as musical numbers—a country music song on the radio sweeps her into a hoedown; her fear that she will not be accepted surrounds her as an aggressive rap.
Gretchen's journey is mixed with some fleeting moments of Maria, the baby's young birth mother, explaining first to her pregnant belly, and then to the baby himself, why she would rather give him up to a white woman than allow him to go into foster care.
The complexities of race are also endemic to Nick's life. His boyfriend, Daniel, is African American and not at peace with the idea of this adoption. In the first scene that allows two characters to be in the same room, a discussion about whether a mother may raise a child across race becomes a crisis between these two men as to whether they themselves can have a future together. It is the best scene of the play—complicated, honest, and excellently played by Keith Arthur Bolden and Rob Cameron. Up to this point, there has been a lot of talk at the issues of racism, but here Margolis is allowing her characters the space to live through an issue in real time. Though I am game for telling a story in unusual ways, I would have gladly traded all of the musical riffing for more scenes like this.
I would have also liked to see more time given to the moment the whole play has been building toward. We have heard Maria share her worries with her baby and have heard and even seen Gretchen's immobilizing fears and doubts. This has left us to wonder if Gretchen will arrive and whether Maria will accept her. But the final scene finds Gretchen already holding the baby with Maria looking on. To me, the most dramatic and illuminating exchange in the play, in which Maria must look at Gretchen and give her baby to her, is left in the blackout between the scenes.
Margolis has created compelling characters and a rich situation. And this production, tightly directed by Teresa K. Pond, has a uniformly talented and game cast. I just hope that in the future these engaging elements could turn an hour-long riff into a fully realized play.