Julianne Nicholson and James Waterston.
BOTTOM LINE: A two-person drama that takes a compelling look at the treacherous territory of marriage and parenthood.
Parents' Evening, a world premiere by Bathsheba Doran and directed by Jim Simpson, currently playing at The Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan, is a two person play that explores the triangular relationship between a couple and their difficult daughter. We meet the couple, Judy and Michael, at home as they get ready for the all important yearly parent-teacher conference for their daughter Jessica. Judy is played by Julianne Nicholson of Law and Order fame, and Michael is played by James Waterston, an accomplished actor in his own right, aside from his father of Law and Order fame. Ten-year-old Jessica has been acting out at school, trespassing on a neighbor's property, and passing racy teenage novels around to her friends. (Ah, fourth grade- does anyone else remember the dog-eared copy of Judy Blume's Forever that was passed around under the tables during fourth-grade reading class? Good stuff.) Jessica is causing a great deal of trouble inside and outside of the home, and is not an easy child. She is precocious, competitive, and rebellious, not unlike her parents.
Judy and Michael have very different ideas about how to handle Jessica's upbringing in this treacherous new "tween" phase. More than that, they have different ideas about how to be a family and a couple. Jessica has altered their marriage, as kids do. Michael, a struggling novelist and stay-at-home dad, is openly jealous of the time his wife spends with their child. He is also openly jealous of his wife's friendships and the time she spends at work. Judy, a high-powered lawyer seeking to make senior partner, is getting weary of her husband's navel-gazing insecurities, and disagrees with his parenting approach to Jessica's misbehavior, which consists of vigorous spanking. Nicholson and Waterston are convincing as a couple co-existing on two separate planes. Their rhythms are different- Nicholson is deliberate, controlled and cold, while Waterston is quirky, erratic and easily impassioned. It is easy to see that they have little common ground as a couple; unfortunately, they are so distant that it is difficult to imagine they ever had common ground to begin with. This weakness lowers the stakes of the play, since if this marriage dissolves, no one would be surprised.
Parents' Evening kicks into gear in the second act (one could argue that the first act is not really necessary, and this play would be stronger with just one act). The couple arrives home from the conference after having learned that their daughter has essentially "informed" on them, telling her teacher she acts out because she never sees her mother. A social worker will thus be coming to their house to investigate the circumstances. Though this plot point rings false- it is highly unlikely that an overworked ACS worker would make a home visit based on the accusation of a child's lack of quality time with a parent (or every household in America would be getting a visit)- Doran uses the crisis of the impending visit effectively. The heightened circumstances bring the couple's buried anger and ambivalence about each other and their child to the fore. Judy protests against her husband's accusation that she no longer cares about him, but can't help revealing her own ambivalence: "Michael, I love you. I love you! Don't I?" The schism that has been growing between them over the course of their marriage is now gaping wide, and it is clear that it might be irreparable.
The questions in Parents' Evening- about how having children changes a marriage, how spouses often end up living alone and lonely even though they remain together, and how to negotiate the treacherous transition when two become three or more- are worth exploring. Doran has some nice insights and a feel for the couple's petty and profound discontent. In an affecting monologue, Michael reveals his disappointment in how his marriage turned out, wishing that he still had the best friend and constant companion of his fantasy marriage. His wife's answer: "Michael, I can't be your special friend all the time." Realistic, true, but heart-breaking nonetheless.
The strength of Parents' Evening is in the dialogue, specifically the insights that Doran reveals about the highs and lows, connections and alienations, of a couple with a child. The direction, design and acting are spare, highlighting the strengths of the script; there are few distractions except for a couple of awkward moments where Nicholson has to place her hands strategically so that the audience cannot look directly up her skirt. The centerpiece of the set, and really the only furniture, is the marriage bed- the metaphorical and literal site where a marriage drama plays out. At the beginning of the play the bed, covered in files and papers, is being misused- Judy is finishing up a few tasks from her day at the law office. At the very end of the play Judy, in a moment of recognition, pushes the files to the floor, and pulls her husband down to the bed and into an embrace. If the couple can stay connected, and honor the marriage pact, together they can overcome the adversities of parenthood, career, and life.
(Parents' Evening plays at The Flea Theater, 41 White Street (between Broadway and Church Streets), through May 29. Performances are Monday through Friday at 8pm, and Saturday at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets are $35 for Monday through Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoon, and $40 for Friday and Saturday evenings. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit theflea.org, or call 212-352-3101.)