“Baby Anger” is playwright Peter Hedges’ most accomplished stage offspring to date, a smart, edgy satire on childhood celebrity that reaches for (and grasps) something far more universal. By turns outrageously fanciful and grimly accusatory, “Baby Anger” details how parental expectations, tainted by adult insecurities and regrets, can all too easily devolve from dreams and hopes to burdens and curses.
Given a sharp production by Playwrights Horizons, the Hedges play marks another winner for the theater company that earlier this year presented the musical “Violet.” Michael Mayer’s assured direction and a strong cast headed by Kristen Johnston (of television’s “Third Rock From the Sun”) and John Pankow (“Mad About You”) put “Baby Anger” near the head of the class of current Off Broadway plays.
With a first act grounded in a sort of Everyparent reality, “Baby Anger” spins into a fantastical fever dream, as if Rod Serling had gotten hold of a tabloid account of a troubled child actor. Young marrieds Mary Kay (Johnston) and Larry Paterson (Pankow) are no-nonsense, happy-to-be-childless types (they married on New Year’s Eve for the tax break) who go through the usual stages of regret, terror and finally joy when quite by accident Mary Kay’s home pregnancy test turns blue as the sky. In short, punchy blackout scenes (played, sometimes simultaneously, on Mark Wendland’s sleek set of movable metal screen panels), “Baby Anger” speeds through the familiar litany of pre-parental jitters, but with an edge so razor-sharp and darkly foreboding that Hedges (best known for his novel and screenplay “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) makes clear he’s up to something more serious than a ’90s version of Little Ricky’s birth.
For starters, the young couple, though likable at first, are no “Barefoot in the Park” types. She’s a failed actress who worries about sacrificing a career she never really had, and he’s a salesman who can’t seem to hold a job. She can’t get far enough from her hated parents, he has spent his lifetime mourning the early deaths of his. Both have very mixed feelings about children in general: He tells a shrink he’s hoping for a boy, then adds with obvious selfishness, “only a boy.” Mary Kay, meanwhile, bursts into tears while chatting with a child-weary young mother in the park, whining, “Will I become like you?”
But the couple’s fortunes change when a model agency scout spots the new baby and promptly casts little Shawn in a commercial. The ad creates a nationwide sensation, with Mary Kay immediately seduced by secondhand celebrity and newfound money.
Until this point, “Baby Anger” maintains at least a semblance of real life, however brutal (Mary Kay lashes out at Larry’s envy of their son’s financial success) or comic (one stage mother, who’s had no less than two daughters in “Les Miz” and has named her son Cameron — get it? — proudly announces that her fetus has landed an upcoming gig). But in the second act, set in the year 2008 with Shawn a 9-year-old boy (well played by Carl J. Matusovich), “Baby Anger” gets weird.
After years of obscurity and little income following the initial modeling success, the Patersons once again find success through their boy when a multinational corporation decides to re-create the previous success of Shawn’s commercial by casting the little boy in a new series of spots. The play’s comedy quickly becomes broader and more fantastical as Shawn’s fame grows to rock-star proportions, the little boy stunned and terrified after being mobbed in a shopping mall, his parents relishing the attention.
Hedges skewers a number of targets here, from the corporate execs who pretend to care for their young spokesman (they’ve prepared a 12-year plan that maps out the boy’s life with every contingency considered) to the national obsession with celebrity.
But mostly Hedges goes after parents who use their children to compensate for their own failings and disappointments, hitting his targets with humor and, when necessary, piercing shame. Sometimes he uses both at once, never better than in a scene pairing Shawn, nearly catatonic with depression and anger, and 9-year-old Eric (Adam Rose), a terminally ill, wheelchair-bound boy who’s been granted a meeting with his famous hero. As the sick boy rattles off a lengthy (and very funny) litany of his favorite things, Shawn slowly emerges from his shell, captivated by the normalcy of Eric’s life. “I wish I was dying,” the star says mournfully, just before joining in Eric’s sudden screams of pain.
The moment is a stunning one, catching the audience more than a little off-guard with its eccentricity and poignancy. As elsewhere, Mayer directs on the narrow edge between cartoon and nightmare, and the acting by the two kids is natural and effective. Johnston and Pankow are funny, terrifying and pathetic, sometimes all at once, and Robert Ari and Linda Emond handle a variety of roles with great skill. As the ambitious, self-serving modeling scout, Ben Shenkman is hatefully on-target.
“Baby Anger” works effectively even when viewed only as a satire on a culture that spawns pre-pubescent beauty queens and troubled child actors. But Hedges could be hinting at something more: Is the entire second act a panic-induced nightmare of the first act’s young couple, tapping into every parent’s fear of screwing up, of repeating the mistakes of their parents? That would explain what otherwise must be counted as flaws, from a reference to the Beatles that would be a little odd for 2008, to a comedic approach that’s sometimes too broad by half.
But as an exploration of fears and resentments passed from one generation to the next, “Baby Anger” is haunting. “Remember, sweetie, we’ll always be with you,” Mary Kay tells her famous little son, echoing the oft-repeated refrain of her own hated parents, the words sounding as much threat as promise.