By Ruth Ross
Grief—and its companion, Anger—pervades Stefanie Zadrovec's play, The Electric Baby. Developed in New York and produced for the first time last year at Red Bank's Two River Theater Company, this surreal, dark comedy leads off Dreamcatcher Rep's roster of plays for the 2015-2016 season.
Although Michael Sommers of The New York Times called the play "touching," I confess that I was scratching my head when the lights came down on the final scene. I found the script precious, pretentious and strange.
The Electric Baby involves three couples brought together by an accidental death. When Helen Casey, infuriated over the behavior of her late daughter's fiancé, runs into the street in a rage, a cab carrying foul-mouthed Rozie and her best friend Dan swerves to avoid her and crashes into a lamp post, killing Dan, severely wounding the Nigerian driver Ambimbola and breaking Helen's husband Reed's shoulder. Afterward, Helen tries to assuage her guilt at having caused the accident by reaching out to Ambimbola at the hospital and his wife Natalia at their home; Reed reaches out to Rozie, a "part-time escort" he knows as Brenda ("best boobs in town"); Rozie visits Ambimbola to commiserate with him over his injuries and her loss; and the ghost of stammering, moralistic Dan comes back to haunt Rozie in the guise of Don, a nurse, and Dave, a waiter. As for "the electric baby," well, the phrase refers to the gravely ill infant that "glows like the moon"—literally—in the cradle placed to the left of the stage. After much talking (much of it arguing between Helen and Reed), uttering of spells (by Natalia) and retelling of Romanian and Nigerian folk tales (by Natalia and Ambimbola), some kind of reconciliation occurs, leaving the audience (and the characters) with hope that their lives will go on despite their great losses.
Director Laura Ekstrand has done a yeoman's job with this play. She keeps the action moving along without a stumble, except for a strange pas de deux performed during an especially talky section. Beth Painter(right), she of the sad eyes, is superb as Natalia, spitting and uttering spells as she croons to her baby and offering wacky folk remedies for common ailments. André de Sandies (right)is equally fine in the role of Ambimbola, ever optimistic despite his grave injuries, loving toward his child who is "as bright as the moon" and given to recounting Nigerian folk tales. These two characters make up the emotional center of this odd play, even though they recite their lines from the opposite sides of the stage.
Unfortunately, the anger and grief center on two couples: the Caseys and Rozie and her friend Dan. Harriett Trangucci (top image, with Scott McGowan) is the embodiment of a mother taking out her grief on everyone, including herself. Her unresolved anger crushes her soul, as well as her marriage. It's hard to feel sympathy for this character as she is written, giving Trangucci little to work with to gain our empathy. Scott McGowan's equanimity in the face of his wife's rage is commendable and his awkwardness around Brenda is rather endearing. As Rozie, Sandy Sainvil (Above with Harry Patrick Christian) has little to do but pout and spew obscenities, making her character thoroughly unlikeable. She never really appears to be comfortable onstage. And Harry Patrick Christian plays a trio of young men: Dan, the stammering victim; Dan the officious nurse; and Dave the crazy waiter. None of these roles match his talent, and he feels wasted.
Zach Pizza has used the stage to represent three venues with minimal props; the lights on the back are a nice touch. Laura Ekstrand has provided the actors with costumes appropriate to their roles and place in life.
The Electric Baby could be called quirky, but to me it was incomprehensible and very talky. Lots of yelling, cursing and making spells did not add up to a satisfying dramatic experience for me. Not that Dreamcatcher Rep didn't work hard (as they always do), but the play did not match their talent and reputation.
The Electric Baby will be performed at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Ave., Summit, through October 18. For information and tickets, call 1.800.838.3006 or visit www.DreamcatcherRep.org for information and tickets.