Birth and After Birth
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 28, 2006
From its opening moments, Atlantic Theater Company's new production of Birth and After Birth hits the ground running and never lets up. Directed at breakneck speed by Christian Parker, performed well by a game and lively cast, and boasting a handsome physical design, Tina Howe's absurdist comedy about two married couples trying to one-up each other benefits from Atlantic's first-class treatment. Originally written in 1972, but making its New York debut now, Birth and After Birth is clearly a product of its time. The characters' constant state of self-examination is right in line with the popular rise of psychotherapy in the 1960s and 1970s. It's also in line with the "Me" Generation's now infamous self-absorbed tunnel vision. Even though incisively written, the characters here are a little one-note. And, the author's confusing use of metaphor and symbolism reveal a dramatist still learning how to use the tools of playwriting. In short, this is second-rate work by a now first-rate playwright.
Which raises the question: is second-rate Tina Howe better than none at all? Despite everything Atlantic's production of Birth and After Birth has going for it, I think, in this case, my answer would be no.
Sandy and Bill are preparing a birthday party for Nicky, their hyper four year-old son. They've stayed up all night decorating the house and wrapping an avalanche of presents. It turns out that all the preparations are designed to impress their party guests, Jeffrey and Mia, a pair of married, childless anthropologists who study poor, disenfranchised children all over the world. They consider themselves superior to Sandy and Bill because of their worldliness and their never-ending stream of book and scientific knowledge. Needless to say, things quickly get out of hand with both couples trying to show each other up (and, not to mention, a spoiled, attention-starved four year-old underfoot).
There are parts of Howe's script that are very accomplished. Bill, stressed out from being investigated for "accounting irregularities" at work, compulsively videotapes the day's proceedings in another attempt to out-do Jeffrey and Mia (as if making the world's best birthday video will make up for his perceived shortcomings). Later on, in a riveting speech, he confesses to cheating on Sandy during a company field trip by attributing his infidelity to a fictional co-worker, Charley E.Z. On the lighter side, Birth and After Birth has a lot of funny moments, including a game of Fart Tag between father and son. And, Howe does a credible job of establishing the idea of a child as a status symbol.
But, the characters' relentless self-centeredness becomes wearing after awhile, and their motives for wanting to be top dog remain a mystery. There's also a recurring symbolic motif of water—Sandy's keeps hearing waves breaking—that goes unexplained. The play concludes with a long story from Mia about a primitive birth ritual she witnessed on one of her globetrotting jaunts that, I think, is supposed to explain why she does not yet have any children, but misses the mark.
But, the cast goes a long way towards making Birth and After Birth worth sitting through. Maggie Kiley, Peter Benson, and Kate Blumberg all have their choice moments as Sandy, Jeffrey, and Mia, respectively. Jordan Gelber, a fully-grown adult actor, is hysterically funny as little Nicky, capturing the insouciant, rambunctious A.D.D. of youth perfectly (he also towers over all the "adults"—a funny sight gag in itself). And, Jeff Binder practically steals the show as Bill, whose manic high-to-low mood swings provide much comic fodder.
Overall, though, I was puzzled by Birth and After Birth—both by what Howe intends to say with it, and by Atlantic's decision to do it. This play doesn't show either of them off at their absolute best. From artists we have come to expect more from, this show is a disappointment.