To have a baby or not to have a baby — that is the question that turns a Fourth of July barbecue contentious for three couples in “The Crowd You’re in With.” Rebecca Gilman’s usual bright dialogue and neatly etched characters make Amy Glazer’s sharp Magic Theater premiere staging an easy, frequently quite funny sit. Yet this 75-minute one-act, a single scene played out in real time, feels awfully slight as a stand-alone evening.
In the effectively nondescript backyard patio of Erik Flatmo’s set, Jasper (T. Edward Webster) and Melinda (Makela Spielman) are having a few people over for supper before everyone goes off to watch the fireworks. Rock critic Dan (Kevin Rolston), a genially loud man-boy, and heavily pregnant Windsong (Allison Jean White) — “stupid hippie parents,” she says, explaining her name — are their best friends.
A more awkward addition to the party are the first couple’s landlords, Karen (Lorri Holt) and Tom (Charles Shaw Robinson), a middle-aged, politically active duo whose cynicism about the state of things has curdled into droll misanthropy. Karen, in particular, can stop any trivial conversation in its tracks: When Windsong expresses superficial worry about the war in Iraq and such, the elder woman snaps, “Of course you’re scared. The world is probably going to end during your baby’s lifetime.”
Congenitally unable to suffer fools — into which category she fast puts the expectant couple — Karen triggers an angry counterattack by Dan and Windsong, who demand to know why she and Tom chose not to have children. Were they merely “selfish”?
This line of conversation gets ugly fast, and remains so even after the landlords beat an awkward retreat. Jasper’s subsequent defense of them, not to mention his unexpected assault on Dan’s skin-deep intellect, suggest to Melinda — whose biological clock has made her eager to follow Windsong’s lead into motherhood — that he’s not exactly on the same page in terms of parental readiness.
“The Crowd You’re in With” — a somewhat mystifying title — is fine as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough to feel like a full dramatic meal. These characters are nicely drawn (and acted), yet recognizable as their types will be to most middle-class, college-educated theatergoers under 60, neither they nor the play’s action ultimately have enough depth to supply sufficient ballast. It feels like a one-act indeed — a protracted scene that requires either further elaboration or a complementary companion piece.
That said, the cast could hardly be better, with Holt a standout as the wellspring of dour, disillusioned-left truths that even she knows are a guaranteed party-killer. Late-coming guest Dwight (Chris Yule), a dim-bulb slacker, is rather gratuitous, though his monologue about why waiters dislike serving families with very young children is hilarious enough to compensate.
Director Glazer and playwright Gilman have collaborated several times before. The perfectly realized rhythms and often hilarious line readings (or even funnier mute double-takes) make it clear they wholly grok each other’s sensibility.