By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
How do you make a dead baby float? Two scoops ice cream, two scoops dead baby. Old joke. Terrible joke. But there it is, coming out of the mouth of Ben Marcus, the expectant father at the center of Little Footsteps, now onstage at the Black Box Theatre at the Addison Theatre Center. Playwright Ted Tally overcame this and other rather terrible early plays in the 1980s and went on to win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Silence of the Lambs.
Funny, 20 minutes into Little Footsteps, I wanted to make the lambs stop screaming.
The theater company producing this disquietingly violent farce about pregnant yuppies fearing the birth of their firstborn is Rover Dramawerks. They specialize in staging "lost or forgotten works of well-known authors," a worthy mission when they actually find a play that qualifies as an undiscovered or neglected gem.
Little Footsteps reads like a rejected Yes, Dear script that got its pages shuffled into a group therapy role-playing exercise. Ben and wife Joanie are young Manhattan yupsters in their sixth month of pregnancy. He's a network TV sports promo something-or-other and she's an artist. They have it all and they're miserable. When the play begins, they're in the midst of converting their dining room into a nursery and having loud arguments that include references to Leona Helmsley.
No, wait, before that, Ben speaks directly to the audience, joking around about how the "child-parent bond sounds like caulking a bathtub" and then dourly hinting at trouble in his marriage. "No matter how good a person she is," Ben says of his wife, "I can't resist being mean to her...What can I say? I am not nice."
No, wait, something happens before that, too. Oh, yeah, the house manager makes that speech about turning off cell phones. And then he closes the door to the lobby, shutting off all means of escape until intermission.
"I like kids in the abstract," Ben says in his opening remarks to the audience, "but not in the apartment." He describes parenthood as "the unprepared attempting the impossible for the sake of the ungrateful." There's no room in this man's life for offspring because his own ego takes up so much real estate. He's one of those guys who earns our contempt by kneeling in front of his pregnant wife, pressing his ear against her belly and saying, "Fetus, don't fail me now." No, he really does. He also says, "That's all just watercress under the fridge." For that, we get to hate Ted Tally, too.
The play goes on--this is only the first 10 minutes so far--as wifey comes home from visiting her Episcopalian parents and berates Jewish Ben for not painting more clouds and butterflies on the dining room/nursery walls. He picks a fight over paint stirrers and says her folks think of Jews as "Old Testament camel jockeys." She expresses some of her own trepidation about the baby's imminent arrival. She and Ben did so many drugs in college, she says, "the baby will look like Flipper."
No, wait, before that, Joanie appears in a fantasy sequence in which her pregnant belly turns out to be a big balloon that Ben pops with a diaper pin. They tell a bunch more jokes about dead or deformed infants, including the one about the woman who gives birth to a baby that has no body. Or head. It's just an eyeball. "What could be worse than this?" she cries. "It's blind," says the doctor.
Starling, believe me, you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.
Little Footsteps plods along like this for another 100 minutes. There may be some opportunities for laughs here and there that this production doesn't explore--director David Nail's flair for staging comedy is right up there with Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb's taste in couture--but it's hard to tell if the fault lies mostly in the writing or in the pacing of performances that stumble into awkward pauses and stiffly choreographed physical altercations.
Farce and violence just don't go. It is downright disturbing to watch a character who was clowning around just moments before suddenly turn into a raging beast hurling household appliances at a pregnant woman. During one of the characters' violent shouting matches, which erupt out of nowhere, the woman sitting in front of me dialed her cell phone and had a short conversation. For a moment I thought she might be calling 911 to report witnessing spousal abuse. More likely she was calling a cab to get her out of there.
Watching bad performances in close quarters such as Addison's Black Box Theatre sometimes is so painful I have to shut my eyes and take a mental taxi to the happy place in my mind, a place where I don't hear terrible actors say terrible lines like "Life is worms and stuff" (Little Footsteps, Act 2). For the first, oh, 40 seconds or so of this production, Rick Dalton, who plays Ben, is potentially cute and likable. Then he starts making rubbery faces and doing bad actor-y things like pretending to paint the wall of the dining room instead of actually dipping his dry brush in the real bucket of paint he's been holding since the play started and really painting the wall. Dalton is attractive, in a goofy frat-boy way. Working with better material and a skilled director, he might have a future performing light comedy in short, undemanding bursts, like in Rooms To Go commercials.
Playing Joanie is Joslyn Justus, a recent theater grad from Austin College who might need to fall back on that other major, whatever it was, for a career. She isn't just inexperienced, she's ill-suited for the stage in almost every respect. She can't move well, has no comic timing and lacks any sense of how to make a line sound conversational instead of memorized. In a pinched, nasal voice she delivers her dialogue with the flat, uninflected tone of a computerized answering service. And she's so disconnected emotionally that she seems to be reading some lines cold off an invisible screen just past the other actors' heads.
If her chemistry with Dalton's Ben is bad, it's worse with the actors playing her nosy parents (they show up in Act 2 to throw a christening party for the unwanted spawn). Joanie has a teary breakdown scene with her dad, played by a lumbering Ron L. Chapman, and then an extended confrontation with her mother, played by Terrie Justus. There's not a believable moment in any of it, though Joslyn and Terrie Justis actually are mother and daughter.
Predictably, all is forgiven among the characters, if not between audience and actors, by 10:05 p.m. Ben, Joanie and the parents gather for a group hug. Then Ben's left alone onstage to cuddle the swaddled prop baby and utter some sort of benign twaddle about how he's ready to be a daddy now. Then he looks up at the rafters and says, "Now what?" The lights switch to a creepy red glow and...curtain.
Over a year ago I swore off Rover Dramawerks productions after enduring a series of their performances that were no less torturous than this one. To be a viable theater company, they just have to do better. Finding obscure plays and slapping them on a stage with cheap talent and bargain basement aesthetics--the Little Footsteps set wouldn't pass muster at a junior high drama club--well, it's just not good enough. Raise the bar. Try harder.
Rub the cream in or you'll get the hose!