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Babies with Rabies

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 5, 2006

The press release for Babies with Rabies, the fun and ingenious new play by Jonathan Calindas, describes it as Noises Off meets Marat/Sade. That pretty much hits the nail on the head. This joyous, silly farce is an affectionate and knowing look at the trials and tribulations of making theatre in the off-off-Broadway world, where it sometimes seems like the inmates have started running the asylum.

Calindas's clever structure is complicated; stay with me here. Babies with Rabies is a play about a young playwright, Jonesy, who is trying to get his play produced off-off-Broadway. His director, Max, has cast an Equity actress named Tina in the play because she's sort of famous, and now Max is pushing Jonesy hard to beef up Tina's role. Jonesy doesn't want to do this because he's cast Miriam in the other female part, and Miriam's dad is a TV producer who just might want to hire Jonesy if he likes the play.

Tina is the worst kind of pushy, affected, limited-talent actor possible. She overplays all her scenes and upstages everyone in her path. She also misplaces emphasis on key words, so that "Sally" comes out "Sall-LEE" and "associate" turns into "ASS-o-see-ate." She calls Max "MOX." She is, to put it bluntly, very annoying.

The other actors involved are Quincy, who doubles as stage manager; Al, who swigs whiskey from a flask at every opportunity; and an inexperienced fellow with money named Winston who has inexplicably been cast in a double-role, as twins, in Jonesy's play.

Jonesy's play is about a group of patients in an insane asylum who are themselves putting on a play about a kingdom where a terrible plague has turned the babies into horrific monsters who prey upon the populace wontonly. In this play within the play (within the play), a Prince (played by inmate # 69; who is played by Quincy), offers a reward of 10,000 gold pieces to whomever can come up with a cure. A Doctor (played by inmate # 5/7/9, who has multiple personality disorder; played by Al) and a very weird scientist named Gary (played by # 54; played by Winston) are competing for the reward, and they're both entangled in a complex plot involving Terry (# 37; Tina), who is pretending to be a man; Larry (# 45 / Winston—both Larry and #45 are identical twin brothers of Winston's other characters); and Sally (# 24 / Miriam).

Meanwhile—still inside Jonesy's play but outside the inmates' play-within-it—numbers 37, 69, and at least one of 5/7/9's personalities are plotting to take over the asylum. And OUTSIDE Jonesy's play, Tina, Max, and Al are plotting to take over Jonesy's play.

Confused? Amazingly, you won't be when you watch Babies with Rabies. Calindas has done an admirable job of feeding the audience just the right amount of information at just the right moments to make sure that we never get caught in the mire of this bizarre and convoluted tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale. At the same time, he's able to get in plenty of digs at the off-off community that he (and we) know and love so well; and a good quantity of just plain funny gags as well.

Rodney E. Reyes directs with style; he's abetted greatly by Mario Corrales's excellent set design, which is simple but appropriate and transforms easily from the onstage to backstage worlds required by Calindas's script. Seven actors play all of the various characters in all the meta-levels of Babies with Rabies, with particularly fine work put forth by Kelly Rauch (Tina/37/Terry) and Dennis Lemoine (Winston/45 & 54/Gary & Larry), both of whom masterfully depict Very Bad Acting among other achievements. Tami Gebhardt is likable and spunky as the shy ingenue Miriam/24/Sally, and Tom McCartan is excellent as the moody Quincy/69/Narrator & Prince. Andrew Rothkin may be a bit over-the-top as Al/5,7,9/Doc. Rob Moretti and Erwin Falcon are fine as Max and Jonesy, respectively, grounding the piece in a reality that nevertheless seems to shift about halfway in.

That final point is one of Calindas's niftiest achievements here: somewhere in Act Two, it becomes clear that whether or not the inmates actually have taken over the asylum, our certainty about what's "real" and what's "pretend" has started to collapse. The inmates' play, and Jonesy's play, and Calindas's play all end simultaneously. Who takes the curtain calls? I'm not entirely sure...