''The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence. Nothing has been added and everything is in the subjects own words, though some editing has taken place. Names have not been changed.'' This passage opens Dennis Kelly’s ripped-from-the headlines 2007 play Taking Care of Baby (playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Broadway Stage II through Dec. 8) but don’t let these phrases fool you. The play is a supremely cheeky bit of theatrical leg-pulling.
Kelly, the British writer won a Tony this year as the librettist of the hit tuner Matilda and who clearly knows a thing or two about depicting undesirable parenting, has fashioned an entirely fictional play about a young, emotionally damaged mother named Donna McAuliffe (Kristen Bush). Poor Donna loses not one, but two children under peculiar circumstances, leading to arrest and imprisonment. This in turn cripples the apple-hued political ambitions of her mother, Democratic congressional hopeful Lynn Barrie (Margaret Colin), who is conveniently being followed by an all-seeing camera on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, a shifty doctor (Reed Birney) is going full steam ahead with research on a disease called LKS (or Leeman-Keatley Syndrome), a mental disorder in which young mothers inflict unconscionable acts of cruelty upon their unsuspecting children. However, it is a condition that has not received full medical approval, leading to some deeper inquiry by a never-seen, only-heard interviewer through the course of the play.
As one can surmise, this is an incredibly bold way to create a new kind of theater, and for about half of the play's two-plus hours, the gimmick is genuinely compelling. Director Erica Schmidt transforms the cozy, nearly-round second stage of MTC into a cream-colored confessional parlor as the eight-member cast sits side by side (in the same kind of chairs we’re in, incidentally) telling their overlapping stories with word hiccups and stammers fully intact. As the play progresses, however, the conceit starts to bleed into creaky melodrama (as in a teary heart-to-heart between Donna and her mother that pierces some of the play’s inherent mystery). There are also some easy potshots did the Republican endorser who attempts to woo Lynn to their side have be so smarmy?
The production is blessed with a laser-focused principal cast. Colin, a terrific supporting player in recent plays like Arcadia and The Columnist, gets to tear into a bona fide lead; her juicy take on a politico is charismatic and cunning without ever sacrificing credibility. Bush overcomes Donna's fuzzy characterization by creating a haunted, inarticulate soul we can recognize instantly. And Birney, an unparalleled Off Broadway treasure, adds another intelligently judged portrayal to his already-impressive oeuvre. Plus, the man has the best slow burn in the business. B