nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 24, 2010
Bathsheba Doran has hit upon an intelligent way to measure the temperature of a relationship while focusing on another topic entirely—child-rearing. In Parents' Evening, her two-hander at The Flea, the focus is on a parent/teacher conference for ten-year-old Jessica. While Jessica never appears on stage, she is ever-present in the heated conversation between her parents, Judy and Michael, a middle class, well-educated couple, who analyze every step and misstep their daughter takes. Doran's script shows insightful nuance as she follows the couple's concerns about their daughter. Through their discussion, they reveal a lot about themselves.
The two-act play opens just before the parent/teacher conference. Michael is very upset about Jessica's behavior. She has won a family game of Clue. Not only did she gloat, but she created a song, "I won and you're dumb." Michael, a novelist, is outraged. Judy, the calm voice of reason, has just come from a talk with Jessica. Half-dressed, Judy casually sprawls across their large platform bed littered with a mess of folders. Up for senior partner, she is intent on finishing some legal work she brought home from the office. Michael ignores this and continues to talk and rant, giving all his topics equal weight. Judy ignores him except for occasional brief responses that include nuggets of key information she learned from Jessica during the course of their talk. Each sets Michael off on a new tirade. Suddenly, the phone rings. For all her work, Judy has time to answer it. She relaxes as she hasn't up until this point. She lies back on the bed and listens, laughs, engages in small talk—all while Michael glares at her, stewing, making faces, trying to get her attention. It is a pivotal moment that anticipates what is really going on. In a telling swipe before leaving the house, Judy reinforces what we have learned by saying to Michael, "Please remember it is not us they're assessing."
Doran knows how to raise tension as well as stakes by withholding key points until the last minute. This is shown throughout the play as startling pieces of information are dropped as if they were not important at all. At the start of Act II, Michael again enters in the middle of a harangue, although this time he actually has something to be upset about. Playwright Doran incorporates a neat twist that sheds light on the interaction of this family. Her twist serves almost as a balm to the barrage that Michael throws throughout the first act. The couple is stunned by what they learned at the conference, and Michael finally has Judy's full attention, although it may not be the kind of attention he was seeking. Their conversation now focuses on their behavior rather than on Jessica's. As Judy says to Michael, "If there were a perfect way to raise a child don't you think someone would have written it in a little manual?"
Director Jim Simpson maintains tight pacing in Parents' Evening and the two actors, Julianne Nicholson and James Waterston, are at home in their roles. However, Simpson might have considered giving Michael more range than the one note of wrath he sings throughout. As it stands, Michael goes from rant to rage with little in between. True, the character is a man in combat, not in conversation, and he cannot talk without pinning his opponent to the mat. While Judy claims to love him, it is hard to find anything about this hot-headed, needy man that makes him lovable. In the play, Judy tells Michael that Jessica repeats to herself "I don't care" whenever he shouts at her. The risk is that the audience might say the same.
Nicholson is luminescent as the cool, detached attorney. Waterston is physically appealing and very good in his outrage. He uses his anger to peel back a number of qualities in his character. First comes the concerned, hands-on father. Then he uncovers a tentative neediness, and ultimately he uncovers the selfish, jealous, child-like traits that make Michael a candidate for serious treatment.
Jerad Schomer created a clean, appealing set that enables the two cast members to move around in natural ways—talking, working, dressing—without an unnecessary clutter of props. Claudia Brown designed costumes, with a very flattering mauve satin blouse for Nicholson. The careful lighting was created by Brian Aldous.
Parents' Evening is an appealing and accessible play that appears to examine parenthood, with all of its good intentions and minor obsessions. But, in the end, Michael is not really as interested in Jessica or her behavior as his words might indicate. What he is really interested in is Judy. His constant ruminations and rants are his way of begging for Judy's attention. His failure to get it is, by his own admission, his biggest and most humiliating defeat.