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Surrealistic comedy views parenthood, the ’70s



Children are such a mixed blessing. We know we’re supposed to love them unconditionally, but sometimes it isn’t that easy. Christopher Durang understands this perfectly … and isn’t afraid to say so.

Take his surrealistic comedy “Baby with the Bathwater,” now playing at Live Theatre Workshop. Told in a series of absurdist vignettes, Durang wrestles with the agony and ecstasy of being a parent. As far as he’s concerned, there’s lots more agony than ecstasy.

The baby in question could be nicknamed Rodney Dangerfield because it just doesn’t get any respect. This baby doesn’t even get a gender until the play is well under way. His parents, you see, can’t seem to decide if they want a girl or a boy.

As it turns out, this particular child is named Daisy and wears dresses. But in adolescence the youngster begins shaving, and eventually marries … a female. Life is never easy in a Durang play. His genius lies in the ability to make you laugh even as you’re wondering if the idea of a dog eating a baby is something to be laughing about.

To revive a phrase from the 1970s: Lighten up! “Baby with the Bathwater” is a play steeped in the cultural upheaval of the Psychedelic Seventies. As one character reminds us, “There is no right or wrong. There’s only fun.”

In more recent times as society’s conservatives have clamped down on much of that fun, it is easy to forget the cultural freedoms that have been lost. Sabian Trout is happy to remind us in directing a snappy production that delivers the goods without batting an eye.

If you lived through the 1970s, if you loved those surreal comedy skits on “Saturday Night Live,” you’ll find lots to laugh about at LTW.

There’s the Nanny (Kristi Loera), who is all sweetness and light … until the baby just won’t stop crying. “Shut up!” she shouts into the frilly white crib at center stage.

The silence is deafening, both onstage and in the audience.

Equally alarmed are the unseen infant’s new parents, John (Jeremy Thompson) and Helen (Jodi Rankin). This hyper-anxious mother and father are convinced if their tiniest of tots is called “baked potato” or “sweetie pie,” it will warp the little one’s mind, permanently turning it to a life of crime and degradation.

Remember all those child-care books from the 1970s urging parents to be more caring, more sensitive, more understanding to the needs of their precious – if spoiled and domineering – offspring? Did those books beget a generation of superior young adults today?

Feel free to start laughing whenever you want.

“Baby with the Bathwater” is chockablock with pop culture references to the period – from singer James Taylor’s drug problems to the best-selling books “The World According to Garp” and “Mommy Dearest,” from the belief that all diseases are psychological to the conviction that red dye No. 2 can kill you, from the radiation suspected by Karen Silkwood to the menu possibilities for Shake ‘n’ Bake.

As a lesson in contemporary history, the play compares with Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles,” which detailed one woman’s struggle to find a meaningful place in the modern work force. There are similar themes about working mothers in “Baby with the Bathwater.” Nobody comes away undamaged.

Structurally, Act One sets up the wondering lifestyle of John and Helen. Joining in the fun is Nell Summers, cast in a series of supporting roles. When we finally see Daisy in Act Two, she is played by the determinedly normal Christopher Johnson. His performance is a tribute to the resilience of all children everywhere.

Grade: B.

if you go

What: Live Theatre Workshop presents “Baby with the Bathwater” by Christopher Durang.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through June 12.

Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.

Tickets: $13-$15.

Details: For reservations, call 327-4242.

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