The name Dennis Kelly didn’t register with me when I noted it in the playbill to his play Taking Care of Baby, which the Manhattan Theatre Club is currently presenting off Broadway. I should have known it for he is the author of the book of the musical Matilda, which is the reigning Broadway hit of last season. But Mr. Kelly is also an internationally acclaimed writer whose work has been translated into more than 30 languages. He has also created two popular British TV series, but this is his first play to be presented to us in New York, and perhaps that’s why, for me, this was his break through.
It plays like a documentary. As the lights come up, its eight characters are seated next to each other on a blank stage. Each will be interviewed by an unseen interrogator who lets us know that ‘Donna McAuliffe’ is a mother, that ‘Lynn Barrie ‘is Donna’s mother, that “Dr. Millard” is a psychiatrist who’d been treating her. Others are reporters, a friend, the doctor’s wife, and some actors double and triple in supporting roles. We learn that Donna is about to be tried for the murder of her two infant children, one two years ago in a case that was ultimately called an accident, the more recent charge is that she intentionally killed her second born as well as her first.
We’ve been exposed to material like this in real life, several times in the recent years. Yellow press headlines have screamed about the drowning of one mother’s two babies by locking them in a car and sending them into a body of water, and other shocking tales of similar Mommy Murders. Donna is clearly mentally ill; while waiting for her trial, she moves in with her mother, who is counting on Dr. Millard’s testimony that Donna is incapable of murder, but that she is suffering from a rare disease that causes violent temper tantrums over which she has no control.
The writing is taut, the dialog smacks of realism, the only villains appear to be the news hawks and police people who insist on answers to their questions that will clearly point to guilt.
The performances by this ensemble are impeccable. Kristen Bush explores Donna for us, and projects everything from self pity to the horrors of self doubt. We believe she didn’t know, and can’t say, just how those children died. Margaret Colin makes totally empathetic a mother who valiantly tries to understand her daughter, and when she fails she finds her own answer to how to survive.
The doctor, in the marvelously capable hands of Reed Birney, convinces us that he truly believes his diagnosis is accurate, but in a beautifully orchestrated scene with his wife who accuses him of self-serving hypocrisy, he shows us there is a dark side to his character. Mrs. Millard is played by Amelia Campbell as a devoted and loyal spouse until her husband crosses a line she cannot tolerate. Ethan Phillips brings humor and tenderness to the role of Jim, a trusted friend of Donna’s. He doubles as an Old Man and shows us how little need be done to totally occupy a rich and colorful character. There’s not a bad apple in the barrel and these gifted actors all contribute to the evening’s success.
The play, though, ultimately interests us more than it moves, fascinates or satisfies us, for Mr. Kelly chooses to let us decide who did what to whom. It is a play in which the search for the truth is the only thing that matters, and I suspect his conclusion is that there is no truth – only his truth, his characters’ truths, and the truth that we the audience bring to the theatre with us. It’s a play that will be discussed by those who see it, but the discussions can only lead to conjecture. I conclude that’s exactly the effect the author was hoping to achieve. And that’s my truth.
Taking Care of Baby is onstage at MTC Stage II, City Center, 131 W 55th St (between 6th & 7th) NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
Richard Seff is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.