Parents Just Don't Understand 

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Parents’ Evening
Written Bathsheba Doran
Directed by Jim Simpson

The problematics of parenthood are hardly novel subjects for the stage, but for this generation of young American playwrights, which British expat Bathsheba Doran has effectively joined with her latest, Parents’ Evening (directed by Jim Simpson), developing an awareness of the legacy of our parents comes part and parcel with shaping our own. In this respect, Doran’s new two-act’s title is double-edged: more than a play about parents quarreling over the course of an evening, it’s also a symbolic quarrel with the parental culture inherited by the playwright and her contemporaries. Though the often very funny drama can’t offer the audience or the besieged couple of thirty-somethings any solutions to these generational anxieties, it pares them down nearly to their rawest form.

Judy (Julianne Nicholson) and Michael (James Waterston) manage what, on paper at least, seems like a very modern household. She works more than full-time and is close to making partner at her firm; he’s a stay-at-home novelist ten years and countless extensions into his latest work. Their unseen ten-year-old Jessica is the subject but certainly not always the cause of many arguments, which give texture to their expositional banter in the first act, but turn into more of a one-note shouting match in the second, following their dreaded parent-teacher meeting. As the whiny, irritable and symbolically castrated because house-bound and writer’s-blocked husband, Waterston makes the most of Doran’s sharp, class-coded humor&emdash;suggesting, for instance, that if their daughter reads sexually explicit fiction, as a classmate’s outraged mother has insinuated, she could at least be reading D.H. Lawrence rather than smuggled YA trash. The more subdued Nicholson deploys anxious deadpan as she sorts through color-coded work folders on their bed, around which the whole play is set, occasionally letting herself get wound up in her husband’s anxieties and then unspooling completely in the second act. Quietly confident in work but riddled with self-doubt in child-rearing, Judy tries her best to soothe Michael’s arcane attitudes and childish anger. As implied in the couple’s discussions of spankings and scoldings, and confirmed in Waterston’s at first surprising, but then increasingly numbing tendency to shout every disagreeable line, this so-called modern family isn’t quite so enlightened as they’d like to think.

Doran reveals these uncertainties and hypocrisies with sensitivity to her endearing characters before turning the tables on them with a calculating logic that shows flashes of Camus and Sartre’s cruelest plays. After the yuppie couple wins us over with their essential goodness, relatable uncertainties and moments of sweet intimacy in act one, we watch them writhe in the wind after a teacher’s very negative judgment of their parenting skills and a date set with a child services counselor. At 90 minutes with intermission, Parents’ Evening is the swiftest deconstruction of an upper-middle-class household you’re likely to see in one evening.

(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

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