Directed by Hannah Eidinow
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Two couples trying to discover who they are as dyadic entities. Four individuals attempting to discover who they are in their unitary states. Oddly, the lives of the couples parallel one another and even more curious, each individual has a doppelganger. These four – coupled in twos – collide on one rainy night in a flat in the midst of Joanna’s (Trudi Jackson) apparent post-partum, post traumatic stress disorder meltdown. This collision and its fallout are the subject of Hannah Patterson’s “Playing with Grown Ups” currently running at 59E59 Theaters at part of its Brits Off-Broadway series.
Joanna is part of the first couple: she is married to Robert (Mark Rice-Oxley) a university lecturer. They are in their late 30s and Robert has decided they needed to have a child. The second couple – the interlopers – consists of Jake (Alan Cox) and his seventeen year old squeeze Stella (Daisy Hughes) whom Jake met at one of his presentations as head of the film department in which Robert teaches. Robert invites Jake over and Jake includes Stella in the invitation. All of this is without Joanna’s knowledge or approval. Robert announces it on his return from work telling Joanna Jake insisted on the visit since he had not seen Joanna “in months.” The visit includes Joanna preparing dinner for four. The meltdown gets worse.
Despite the levels of cordiality proffered by Robert and their guests, Joanna is in no mood to entertain. The harder Robert, Jake, and Stella try, the worse the situation becomes. Jake is so insensitive to the dynamics of the visit that he insists on staying the night with Stella. And at no time does Robert intercede on Joanna’s behalf. He is more interested in securing his position at the university and securing his future by producing children. He cares more about whether Jake should be dating a seventeen year old than he does about the psychological and spiritual health of his wife. Joanna has discovered she cares “more about bringing [her] women back into the world than [she does] about bringing [Lily] into the world.” This discovery will change her life and her marriage in catastrophic and cathartic ways and this catharsis is at the very core of “Playing with Grown Ups.”
The difficulty is that no one is listening to Joanna. Even Joanna has not listened to herself in a very long time. Joanna loves her work at the publishing company. She cherishes being able to bring back to life women writers who have become “unpopular.” After Lily’s birth, she realizes that decision to have a child was not hers but her husband’s. Joanna has given up all that she loves in order to do something she does not want to do and to become someone she is not. Robert does not understand Joanna’s ennui and believes everything will be all right if his wife “gets some help.” Apparently not much progress has been made since the nineteenth century solution to a woman’s sadness was to administer a dose of laudanum or prescribe a stint in a “sanatorium.”
Under Hannah Eldinow’s often cumbersome direction, all four actors manage to bring their characters to levels of believability and authenticity. Trudi Jackson brilliantly portrays a Joanna lost in a vacuum of indifference: those who portend to love her are in fact indifferent to her needs and to her aspirations. Mark Rice-Oxley’s Robert is a “good old boy” nattily disguised in thirty-something wolves’ clothes and Mr. Rice-Oxley pulls off that annoying duplicity with charm and wit. Alan Cox gives the audience a Jake whose annoying intrusiveness can easily burst forth in righteous indignation: when Jake defends himself against Robert’s accusations of inappropriate behavior, Mr. Cox shines. And Daisy Hughes is the perfect teenage Stella who is simply trying to discover what it means to be seventeen in the midst of a trio of almost-forties all of whom lack direction or requisite ego strength. She is Joanna’s doppelganger as Jake is Robert’s double.
The only weakness of this production is in its length and its pacing. The performance is too long and the actors’ pacing seems off. It takes far too long to establish the relationship between Stella and Jake and the scenes between them are laborious, particularly the bed scene. There are unnecessary gaps between conversations and individual characters deliver lines at a slow pace. Perhaps this improved after this performance. Nonetheless, “Playing with Grown Ups” is an important play and worth the visit. Joanna’s and Stella’s quests to discover who they are resonate in significant ways with all attempts at self-realization and self-acceptance.