“Baby with the Bathwater”: Dysfunctional Family and Oddly Cheerful Dark Comedy

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Photo credit: Happy Medium Theatre Co

Presented by Happy Medium Theatre Co.
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Lizette M. Morris

February 14-22nd, 2014
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 8 pm, Saturdays 4 pm, Sundays 3 pm
The Factory Theater
791 Tremont St
Boston, MA 02118
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston) Happy Medium Theatre’s Baby with the Bathwater is searing, cruel, and weirdly loving.  A lopsided family portrait, the play is a satire on abusive upbringings dramatized for entertainment.   The show appears to take place in a warped alternate universe where new parents John (Jeremy Towle) and Helen (Denise Drago) are too dimwitted to understand one holds a baby when it cries or that children aren’t allowed Nyquil. Their misnamed son, Daisy (Mike Budwey), endures a home life so skewed but with parents so achingly human, it becomes chillingly akin to real dysfunction.

Perhaps the bleak comedy works as well as it does because the characters cling to a certain awareness of themselves no matter how absurd their circumstances. An unhinged woman, Cynthia (Drew Linehan, who proves versatile in other roles through the course of the show), breaks into their home in order to sing and coo at their child.  So of course, Helen and John have some sense that things aren’t right.  This doesn’t stop them from allowing her to spend the night, however, along with their terrifying Nanny, the cheerfully vicious Nicole Howard.

Linehan, a newcomer to the company, is an actress with pinpoint comic timing in a play that demands nothing less.  She’s in excellent company with Howard, who throws herself at every role she’s given with playfulness and mania, and Drago, who teeters on the edge between giddy housewife and human train wreck.  Other Happy Medium newcomer, Jeremy Towle, lampoons a lay-about, alcoholic father expertly, obscuring his insecurities with addictions and always careful of the feelings of his wife and son, Budwey’s understandably surly Daisy.

Though Baby with the Bathwater juxtaposes over-the-top madcap humor with darker elements, it always stays grounded and whole.  The story is uncomfortable to think about afterward, but during the show, it’s easy to laugh at Helen unable to hold a baby after having a cocktail for breakfast or the adult Daisy counting off the thousands of causal lovers (and STIs) he’s had in his therapy sessions.  Each new misfortune is treated with such absurdity, playwright Christopher Durang forces us to laugh.  It’s probably one of the most successful dark comedies I’ve seen from Happy Medium Theatre.

Perhaps what keeps the tragedy afloat with such ease is the bright thread of optimism that runs through it.  We never find out why John and Helen don’t understand how to rock a newborn to sleep or why they can’t see through Nanny’s paper-thin charade, but we know they want the best for their child.  That’s all the characters of Baby with the Bathwater, and new parents everywhere, can offer in the end: good intentions and the hope their mistakes won’t be too damaging.

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