If you’re in a generous mood, you can appreciate the absurdity of Christopher Durang’s Baby with the Bathwater, a wicked indictment of incompetent parenting swaddled in broad comic wrapping. To wit: dipsomaniacal John and neurotic with a capital “N” Helen refer to their new little one not as “he” or “she” but as “it.” The nanny who arrives like a twisted Mary Poppins, complete with umbrella, happily tosses “It” into the bassinet like a loaf of bread. Another mother not named Helen leaves her own infant at home alone with a hungry dog, which proceeds to devour the baby. All the dark humor is intended to stimulate our serious thinking about parenthood, childhood, gender and societal expectations.
So it does. Yet the laughs in Durang’s 1983 comedy, now on stage at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights, are hit and miss. There’s a hysteria to the performances of Amanda Sitton and Brian Mackey as the unqualified parents of “Daisy,” not seen until well into Act 2, that is more irritating than funny. While the always good-for-a-yuk Shana Wride milks every moment out of the subversive-nanny role (and a couple of others later), those antics, too, turn tiresome after awhile. By the time the teenaged Daisy appears, she is the he that he always was – you’re reading that correctly – and wants badly to understand himself and the world around him. But whatever understanding we come to embrace for the character, earnestly portrayed by J. Tyler Jones, must compete against a familiar unseen-psychiatrist bit and the shrill return of Sitton and Mackey as the older but still outta control Mom and Pop. The raucous tone of the production suggests that our understanding is less important than our laughter anyway.
The Diversionary production, directed by Andrew Oswald, pays tribute to the play’s ‘80s incarnation, with nuggets like “Tainted Love” “and Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) bridging scenes. Kate Bishop’s costume designs are delightfully retro, and the various wigs worn by supporting actress Kailey O’Donnell nicely create the illusion that the Baby with the Bathwater cast is bigger than you thought it was.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.