By Hannah Patterson; Directed by Hannah Edinow
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 5.18.14
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Eleanor J. Bader on 5.7.14
Trudi Jackson and Mark Rice-Oxley in Playing With Grown Ups, part of Brits Off Broadway. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: Sharp wit and clever one-liners make this an entertaining, but ultimately devastating, look at one woman's attempt to reconcile self-actualization with the parenting of a newborn.
When feminists of the late 1960s and 70s began mobilizing in Western countries, one of the most potent rallying points was the denunciation of biology as destiny. As a result, access to abortion and contraception became foundational demands and activists took to the streets to push for reproductive equity. Their activism led to some big victories—not just in the U.S. but in Europe as well.
Not surprisingly, legalized abortion and the widespread availability of birth control angered conservatives and led to the creation of well-funded and fervent backlash movements, movements that continue to extol motherhood as essential for every female. While these ideas are largely attributed to religious right-wing and Tea Party activists here at home, it doesn’t take much digging to reveal that hoary ideas about gender persist in secular society as well.
Take Dr. Tadashi Yoshomura, whose book Joyous Childbirth Changes the World was released by Seven Stories Press last month—April 2014. Although the book aims to critique unnecessary medical interventions, the good doctor’s essentialist views are shocking: ”Every woman has a desire to give birth, regardless of her age,” he writes. “This is the most basic instinct of women…The purpose of the female sex is to generate, nurture, and bequeath life.”
Many people, of course—men as well as women, feminists and non—are likely to find such notions simplistic, if not wholly revolting. At the same time, adulthood in so-called developed countries remains inextricably linked with having a brood of one’s own and childless heterosexual couples continue to encounter head-wagging disapproval.
Joanna (Trudi Jackson in a stunning performance that fluctuates between fury, angst, and a desire to please), the protagonist in Playing With Grown Ups, has succumbed to these pressures, and despite a truckload of ambivalence, has gotten pregnant, carried to term, and now has a nine-month-old daughter, Lilly, to care for. As a newly-minted stay-at-home mom, Joanna is keenly aware of all that she has given up to have a child. Now 40, she had worked as an editor at a well-regarded feminist publishing house for almost two decades—one of the play’s few flaws is that it is not entirely clear why she has seemingly opted not to return to this post—and she misses the office camaraderie and sense of accomplishment that the position afforded her. Her husband (played with oblivious, if well-meaning, disregard by the excellent Mark Rice-Oxley) has been so focused on pending layoffs at his job that he has not noticed his wife’s descent into serious depression. In fact, his tunnel vision is so profound that he has invited his longtime-friend-now-boss, Jake, (played with pompous flair by Alan Cox) to dinner. Accompanying Jake is his latest conquest, a 17-year-old schoolgirl named Stella (enacted by the lovely, if too-wise-for-her-years, Daisy Hughes).
As you’d imagine, Joanna is not exactly thrilled by the prospect of having to entertain guests and the evening is a predictable disaster. Tensions mount and while much of the foursome’s repartee is witty, the undercurrent of marital discord remains blatant during the one difficult evening that is depicted. Indeed, the near constant sniping between the parties makes clear that a happy ending is unlikely. What’s more, as personal revelations come to the fore, the truth of the assertion that it takes a village to raise a child is underscored. In fact, Playing With Grown Ups takes it one step further: It will also take a village to undo our cultural assumptions about gender, social conventions, and family.
(Playing With Grown Ups is performed in Theater C, 59E59 Theater, 59 East 59 Street, through May 8, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:15 PM; Fridaysat 8:15 PM, Saturdays at 3:15 PM and 8:15 PM, and Sundays at 3:15 PM and 7:15 PM. Tickets are $35 (members pay $24.59) and can be ordered by calling 212.279.4200 or at www.59E59.org.)