Talk about shows that appeal to niche audiences! Daniel Pearle’s new play, “A Kid Like Jake,” should captivate yuppie parents from upscale urban neighborhoods who are obsessed with getting their little darlings into prestigious private kindergartens that cost $40,000 a year. This talky domestic drama also has a lock on anyone with a 4-year-old kid who displays transgender behavior. Playgoers outside these narrow demographics might reel back in horror from this scary spectacle of parental insanity.
This “Kid” came out of LCT3, the developmental production wing that Lincoln Center Theater recently installed in its handsome new rooftop theater, which means that there are no flies on this production.
Helmer Evan Cabnet comes to the project with beaucoup experience developing new plays; a cast of pros shows technical savvy at working with untested material; and a smart design team makes efficient use of the modest stage space. Faced with the challenge of establishing a context for multiple short scenes, lighting designer Japhy Weideman came up with the clever notion of quick-shifting the colored gels trained on a large painting dominating the set.
Carla Gugino, who held her own with stage royalty Rosemary Harris and Jim Dale in “Road to Mecca,” puts herself through hell to reach the troubled heart of her character, a young mother named Alex who gave up a legal career to be the perfect mom to her 4-year-old son, Jake, and is now desperate to get the kid into a top-tier Manhattan kindergarten.
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How desperate? Desperate enough to send out applications months in advance. Desperate enough to hang on the word of the placement adviser at Jake’s fancy preschool. Desperate enough to neglect her husband and abandon all the housekeeping chores. So desperate, in fact, that Gugino deserves a medal for finding subtle ways of humanizing and earning a bit of sympathy for a monomaniacal character whose obsessive behavior escalates to a point that she becomes unbearable to watch.
Alex’s husband, Greg, is a clinical psychologist, and Peter Grosz strikes the appropriate stance of a supportive shrink with the infinite patience to put up with crazy human behavior. (He even looks the weedy part in the drab outfits designed by Jessica Wegener Shay.) But for a mental health professional, Greg is far too indulgent of Alex’s increasing agitation about getting her spoiled-rotten child into the right kindergarten.
Neither one of these solicitous parents seems to know how to deal with the other matter hanging over Jake’s head — his enthusiasm for “gender variant play” like dressing up in girly dresses and playing all the princesses in Disney movies.
Alex and Greg had always indulged the quirky behavior of their artistic child. But it becomes an issue when their friend Judy, the know-it-all placement counselor played with grand panache by Caroline Aaron, advises Alex to highlight Jake’s “special” quality in his school applications. That’s all it takes for the kid to start acting out in school and behaving badly in his kindergarten school interviews.
There are good reasons that Pearle scoops up foundation grants and can place his plays in developmental workshops: He has interesting ideas and he writes well. But “A Kid Like Jake” has problems to work out before it can find its way onto a broader stage.
For one thing, the anxiety level in this household is pitched much too high at the top of the show. Instead of opening in some emotionally neutral zone where Alex’s angst can gradually build into a full-blown obsession, the play opens with her already on the edge of hysteria. That initial misstep leads to increasingly shrill and repetitive complaints that cost Alex dearly in audience sympathy — and add an unnecessary quarter-hour or more to the running time.
Pearle also makes the mistake of waiting for Last Call before he comes across with some insightful character revelations. By the time he gets around to dropping some hints about how Alex’s own childhood traumas might have left their mark on her son, no one on stage (or in the audience) has any energy left to play this game.