Tina Howe’s idiosyncratic wit and absurdist sensibility get a stylish outing in the Atlantic Theater Company’s antic revival of her eccentric 1972 social comedy “Birth and After Birth.” Although this intellectual farce fails to come up with the comic button to wrap up its themes about the excesses of modern parenting, there is still much fun to be had in Howe’s surreal vision of an elaborate birthday party orchestrated by the doting parents of a precocious 4-year-old.
As hilariously played by Jordan Gelber, a grown man with the husky build of a high-school linebacker and the petulant expression of a spoiled child, little Nicky is a parent’s nightmare. Tearing into his expensive birthday presents and wrecking the gaudy decorations for his party, the monstrous child is the metaphorical elephant in the living room.
(And a suitably ghastly suburban living room it is, defined by Takeshi Kata’s soulless set design and amplified by Obadiah Eaves’ eerie sound system, with its ominous suggestions of a wild and unruly nature lurking beyond these protective walls.)
Despite his bratty behavior, Nicky is the very definition of the perfect child, the symbolic embodiment of his parents’ pretensions and, as such, the living proof of their intrinsic worth. But the kid is funny in his own right, behaving like any normal 4-year-old who knows exactly how to manipulate his parents — scary only because he is being played by a beefy guy who could crack their skulls with an over-enthusiastic hug.
Jeff Binder and Maggie Kiley have the right take on Bill and Sandy Apple, playing the parents like suburban Dr. Frankensteins who have no idea what a monster they’re creating. The more they push their son to perfection, the more they reveal their own fears and insecurities. Stalking the boy with a camcorder, Binder adopts the fierce demeanor of a big-game hunter in the African veldt. (“They’ll eat their hearts out when they see this video,” he exclaims, with a fiendish grin.)
Kiley shows Maggie’s desperation when, in gloating about her own fecundity, she lords it over the childless couple who arrive in act two to celebrate Nicky’s birthday (“They may have exciting careers now, but what about when they’re retired and all alone in the world?”).
Besides being exceptionally well cast, Christian Parker’s smartly helmed production for the Atlantic keeps a firm grip on play’s absurdist elements — until that crucial moment in the second act when all comic logic is lost to feverish fantasy.
Howe’s imagination simultaneously takes wing and flies out of control once dinner guests Jeffrey (Peter Benson) and Mia (Kate Blumberg) join the competition. Although they may be childless, this husband-and-wife team of anthropologists has observed some truly remarkable children in their travels, and the wild tales they spin about these fabulous creatures make Nicky look like a mewling infant.
Once Mia starts lecturing about the wondrous children of the Qua tribe and the Whan See bush people, Blumberg obliges by going into some truly impressive ecstatic trances.
Poor Nicky trots out his best party pieces — a classical cello suite and full-bore impersonations of American presidents. (“You think this is good? You should see his Shakespeare.”) But the kid is outclassed, and he knows it.
Given the scribe’s extravagant comic imagination, it’s a shame she couldn’t keep on point and wrap up her play with some definitive insight to bring it back to reality. Instead, she allows the fantasy to follow its own bizarre course until it exhausts itself, leaving Bill and Sandy no wiser than when they began this journey — and Nicky one screwed-up little boy.