Closing out its 11th season, The Strand Theater Company presents the final three performances of Paula Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven. Directed by Emily Hall and featuring a talented cast and production team, it’s unlike anything else you’re going to see in Baltimore this weekend, or probably any other.
Playwright Paula Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven is a weird play. The show is about a lesbian couple, Anna and Ruth, who are having a baby with their gay male friend, Peter, and the threesome live together and will be raising the child together as a family. That’s not the weird part. Though it was undoubtedly shocking in 1984, when Vogel wrote the play, the family arrangement is the least unusual thing about this play. (It’s 2019, we know that families take all shapes and forms, right?)
The weirdness stems from the following: (a) along with the three adults in the apartment live three imaginary children, (b) the imaginary children are a boy genius named Cecil; Henri, the little boy from the French film “The Red Balloon;” and Orphan, a semi-feral child raised by dogs, and whom they rescued from Port Authority, (c) the adult women communicate with each other (and Peter) in the personas of these imaginary children at least as often as they communicate as themselves, and (d) with the impending birth of their real child, the threesome decide to get rid of the imaginary trio. Emotionally gruesome hijinks ensue.
I love weird. Did I love this? To be honest, no, not really. But I have been thinking about it a lot. I believe one of the most fundamental powers of theater is that it makes you think and discuss things you might not otherwise contemplate. And what’s really interesting, particularly with weird theater, is how varied people’s thoughts and experiences are with the same material. As a rule, I don’t read other people’s reviews before I write my own, but I made an exception for this play. What I found illustrates this point beautifully.
A fellow member of the Fourth Estate said this about And Baby Makes Seven in Broadway World: “Is this an important play, like Indecent? No. The only thematic message, apart from the goes-without-saying affirmation of LGBTQ life choices, is that we should not ‘be afraid to play,’ which is about as anodyne as they come. But since when need hilarity justify itself with a message?” A sister reviewer at BITR Sisters took something very different away, contending, “This is an infinitely important script, with beautiful diversity showcased on stage… Now, this production itself, while aptly chosen and immensely important, only partly succeeded at reaching the full potential of the script.”
The reason I was checking my colleagues’ perspectives was that I was having a hard time parsing my own response to the show. The production was solid and the actors were 100% committed to the world of the play; why didn’t I like it more? It was clearly the script that was bugging me. But Paula Vogel is a superstar playwright; why did she write this and am I the only one who finds it objectionable? Turns out I’m not. Historically, many reviewers seem to applaud the actors, but hate this play. It usually revolves around disliking listening to adults speak as if they were children and that the notion of killing children – even imaginary children – is troubling. The thing that was really too far for me was the sexualized nature of Henri. I found images like a grown woman who is impersonating a prepubescent boy groping an adult man while calling him Uncle altogether offputting. I also found it cause for serious concern about the future well-being of this child if, when faced with uncomfortable feelings, his parents devolve into nine-year-olds who settle arguments by calling each other “vagina head.”
Our founder, Joel Markowitz, always said “review the production, not the play,” so I’m going to leave it to you to figure out the dissonance between the three opinions of the script I’ve presented and move along. I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to watch Grant Emerson Harvey as Peter. He has an easy stage presence that I hope to see more of in the future. Jess Rivera is basically on 11 from start to finish in the roles of Henri and Orphan; it may be appropriate for the characters and some in the audience found it hilarious, but I found it a bit exhausting. I preferred her performance of Ruth, who shared some vulnerable moments with the audience. Rounding out the cast was Katharine Vary as Anna and the precocious Cecil. The last time I saw Vary on the Strand stage, she portrayed the eponymous heroine in the workshop production of Alice Stanley’s Sally McCoy. This performance in juxtaposition to that demonstrates her considerable range.
Scenic Designer Kate Smith-Morse’s clever set effectively suggests the multiple rooms of the family’s crowded apartment. In conjunction with Sound Designers Emily Hall and Seth Schwartz, Lighting Designer Lana Riggins both sets the mood and helps distinguish between the imaginary and the real. Finally, Costume Designer Kitt Crescenzo outfits the cast in ways that allow them to seamlessly switch between characters.
The Strand Theater Company is not only notable as the sole brick-and-mortar theater in Baltimore only producing works written by women. It is also an asset to the community because it acts as an arts incubator; a place where new plays are devised and workshopped; a safe space for women to find and use their voices; and a venue offering theatrical experiences you’re not going to find elsewhere. This is one of those experiences.
You may find Paula Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven to be a vital and significant play. You may regard it as simply an entertaining romp. Or you may sit there, squirming, wondering why folks are laughing at a lascivious fictional nine-year-old. Script-wise, the attitudes you bring into theater with you will largely determine that. Production-wise, it’s the level of brave, committed artistry you expect when you go to The Strand. How do the interplay of the content and execution balance for you? There are three ways to find out: Friday or Saturday at 8 pm or Sunday at 2 pm.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.