Sometimes we just have to indulge our friends when they’re emotionally fraught with an inevitable life change. It helps if they’re intelligent, funny and personable, which describes Jerry, the 40-year-old in “Knickerbocker,” Jonathan Marc Sherman’s play about a fatherhood freakout, premiering at the Williamstown Theater Festival.
Jerry (Reg Rogers) is about to become a dad and he’s got a sonogram image in his wallet to prove it. “Are you ready?” his friends keep asking him. Clearly the answer is no. But it’s not just diaper duties that worry him. Jerry hasn’t yet come to terms with this big change in his life; he is still “relatively semi-young,” as buddy Chester (a terrific Peter Dinklage) tells him. But responsibility for another life and the potential echoes of his own in his soon-to-be-son have got him talking — and talking. The listening part, however, he hasn’t quite perfected.
The play is a series of duologues as Jerry — practically vibrating with excitement, anxiety and fear in a kinetic and appealing perf by Rogers — seeks conversation counsel and support from his wife, ex-girlfriend, friends and father, all from the padded leather booth of his favorite restaurant, the Knickerbocker, a hangout he is sure to see less of in the future. (Too bad, because, as designed by Alexander Dodge, it’s a comforting and colorful place, despite the not-so-great service.)
While wonderfully performed and helmed with smart comic snap and sincerity by Nicholas Martin, the piece remains slight and familiar. Though it dances around a dark edge from time to time, it never goes beyond a hint of deep trouble. But like a night out with a good friend experiencing angst we can both be amused by and feel superior to, “Knickerbocker” should prove an audience favorite in future stagings.
Being trapped in a booth with a guy going through a not exactly unique experience could certainly be worse. But Jerry’s wit, wordplay and passion for trivia can be diverting, and his friends, family and lovers are good company, too. However, a drinks-and-beer-nuts version of “My Dinner With Andre” this is not.
It’s familiar territory: man-child who has to come to terms with adult responsibility; male newly seeing himself not just as a sexual figure but a paternal one; son in fear of becoming his father. The show also has a sentimental streak, signaling the inevitable sweet grace note at the end.
For the first half of the play, the material is deceptively enhanced by the sterling perfs. Susan Pourfar is charming as the centered wife. Brooks Ashmanskas, who can get big laughs just reading a menu, dispenses been-there wisdom as one of Jerry’s buds. Annie Parisse brings sizzle as an ex-girlfriend. The comedy ramps up with a killer perf by Dinklage (who appeared in Ethan Hawke’s Off Broadway production of Sherman’s “Things We Want” in 2007) as Jerry’s eternal single buddy — still on the prowl, still stoned, still alone.
Play derives its greatest emotional resonance from the arrival of Bob Dishy as Jerry’s remarried father. As much as Dinklage explodes in his scene, Dishy shows the beauty of quiet, giving a perf of seasoned and paternally aggravating assurance, just what you expect from a father with whom you share a history of pain and pleasures.
Watch Dishy’s delicious timing and the laugh he gets when he tells his son he didn’t go to Woodstock. “Why not?” Jerry asks at this missed historic opportunity. “The traffic.”
Understanding timing — and balance — is the key to life and becoming a father, according to Dad. And while antidepressants help, too, it’s also the sure way “to find the sweet spot.” Rest assured, as in all familiar constructs and age-old anxieties, Jerry finds his in the end.