Written in 1972, published but never before produced, Tina Howe’s “Birth and After Birth” should have been left in the drawer. Apparently a paean to motherhood, this absurdist pastiche offers only broad strokes and cheap shots, despite Paul Berman’s inventive direction and a capable cast, stuck with playing repulsive cartoon characters. By comparison, a “Saturday Night Live” skit looks like Chekhov.
Sandy is the embodiment of long-suffering mommydom: Her scalp is “granulating” (piles of sand fall on the floor, thus her subtle name), her hair is falling out and she inexplicably smells the sea. Kate Skinner manages to create a nearly credible character even with curtain lines like “It wears you out but it’s worth it.”
Her “great big 4-year old” Nicky, whose birthday party is the occasion of the plot, is literally a great big actor, a plump, balding Rob Leo Roy who cavorts in a parody of childish greed and curiosity, wearing masks, reciting the Gettysburg Address, playing the cello and wearing his mother’s $ 75 bra on his head. Completing the family is the videotaping, baseball-cap-wearing Daddy (David Ingram), a neglected husband whose job and psyche seem to be collapsing.
By the end of the first act, every present has been unwrapped and every shtick milked. The long second act provides reinforcements: Enter the friends of the family, the childless Freeds (more subtlety of names), an anthropologist couple (Greg Wood and Jessica Sager) who travel to exotic places and study the children of primitive tribes.
This provides opportunity for more parental proselytizing, standard-issue National Geographic slides of children in the jungle, description of one Stone Age tribe’s custom of “fetal reinsertion” as the ultimate expression of possessiveness, and revelations about Mia Freed’s pathological fear of child-birth. Wood is subtly icy as the elegant, supercilious husband, but Sager is far too young for the role of his wife, and seems unable to move her arms or deal with her teeth.
Whatever this play has to say about childbearing and child rearing has been said a million times before — not a parent in the audience couldn’t have supplied the obvious observations about the pleasures and exasperations of raising kids. The derivative, dated the-atrical methods (a little Ionesco here, a little Albee there) seem as pointless as the old idea that women have either children or careers, wombs or brains. It’s an impossible play to take seriously.