Arts & Culture

Boy meets Girl meets existential void

Arts & Culture Editor
Friday, November 13, 2009

There’s an obvious difference between using a set of directions to get somewhere and using a map. The former only provides one way of traveling from point A to point B. A map, on the other hand, is the sum of all directions, the totality of all possible routes. Maps open up options, and directions close them. Yet both maps and directions allow for the possibility of getting lost.

Edward Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” — opening tonight at Production Workshop under the direction of Doug Eacho ’11 — is, yes, about a baby, at least superficially. But Albee’s language throughout suggests that the play really takes place in the metaphorical terrain of journeys: travel, departure, destinations, getting there, finding the way back, learning the route.

It’s a play that juxtaposes two characters of Edenic innocence against two characters of knowing, Machiavellian experience. On the innocence side, Albee gives us Boy (Paul Cooper ’11) and Girl (Deepali Gupta ’12). At the beginning of the play, they have a baby. Or perhaps they are babies themselves. In classic Albee fashion, they’re both parents and children at once, and their wide-eyed ingenuousness is jarring when set against their frank awareness of their sexuality.

Then there’s Man (Ted Cava ’11) and Woman (Meredith Mosbacher ’11). Dressed in elegantly conservative business clothing, they slowly infiltrate the drama, eventually taking it over. If Boy and Girl were slippery, the identities of Man and Woman are harder still to pin down. This is particularly true of Woman, whose autobiographical monologues sound literary and rehearsed — in other words, totally untrustworthy. It’s not clear who Man and Woman are, where they came from, or what they have to do with Boy and Girl.

“The Play About the Baby” is a slow burn, and it takes a while for the subtle characterizations and submerged conflicts of the first act to come to fruition. But when everything clicks into place, it’s exhilarating and terrifying: an all-out verbal battle over not just the baby itself, but the baby’s very existence. Is it — was it — a living thing or a linguistic figment?

In the process, Man and Woman take Boy and Girl on a journey through the shadowy corners of what it means to be human in a world of aggression, domination and psychological and sexual manipulation. Man and Woman suggest that the most difficult and perilous journeys take place in the distances between people and between past and future. It’s an education, but there’s nothing sentimental about it.

There’s no getting around the fact that there’s a potentially problematic imbalance in Albee’s script. Man and Woman get much more time to air their positions and develop themselves as characters than Boy and Girl do. Any reader of Milton will find it familiar: The Devil gets all the best lines.

Cava capitalizes on his monologues with impish menace, careening between registers and keeping the audience unsettled, while Mosbacher’s Woman bubbles with charm that deceives and disarms. The two of them refuse to allow the audience to become mere spectators. They weave among the seats and take delight in picking on people, asking uncomfortable questions.

In some ways, Cooper and Gupta have the harder task here of individuating their characters and making their presence register under this onslaught. As Boy and Girl, they extract enormous pathos from the script and put everything on the line. The cast as a whole is incredibly impressive.

Eacho’s production — which keeps things moving in a brisk 100 minutes — aims for and achieves immediacy of impact, keeping the set spare and pulling the seats around in the tightest possible half-circle that mimics a thrust stage.

Yet even as he refuses the audience any physical distance from the action, Eacho lays bare the mechanics of the production itself. The lighting board is right there on-stage; pre-act music comes from a visible laptop and a pair of speakers. It is, as the Bostonians say, wicked smart — wicked and smart, in this case, suspending the audience between artifice and sincerity.

PW’s black box space works a kind of magic on productions like this. Self-limitation of resources combines with the weighty emptiness of the theater itself, focusing energy on the central, triangular relationship of actors, audience and text. “The Play About the Baby” is PW doing what PW does best.

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