Wednesday, May 9, 2018
One understands a playwright’s temptation to revisit, and revise, an early hit. But this impulse comes with a big risk: What if the original material isn’t salvageable? That’s the case with The Baby Dance, Jane Anderson’s 1990 drama, which is currently being staged by Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre in what it calls a “Mixed” version. It concerns a well-off but infertile Los Angeles couple that arranges to adopt the soon-to-be-born baby of an economically struggling husband and wife in rural Louisiana. Not surprisingly, they find there is a gaping cultural gulf between them, and their mutual suspicions and misunderstandings soon put the arrangement in jeopardy.
Anderson has done fine, subtle work, including the teleplay for HBO’s Olive Kitteridge. But her play here is marred by shock-value violent outbursts, plot twists that come across as dramatic contrivances, and one-dimensional characters who can be summed up in a single word. Wanda, the birth mother, is resigned; Regina, the adoptive mom, is desperate; and both of their husbands feel emasculated. Jenny Sullivan’s production boasts some fine performances — Krystle Rose Simmons and Gabriel Lawrence are outstanding as the working-class couple — but the actors are playing types, not individuals.
For this revision, Anderson has added race to the mix, making the working-class couple and the upper-class woman African American. That choice seems retrograde — by this point, shouldn’t stories about people of color be told by writers of color? — and also oddly irrelevant. The Baby Dance isn’t really about race or class: It’s about gender, and its portrayal of both men and women is disappointingly reductive.