Big Babies

Movies about parenthood tend to exaggerate the icky-diaper issues. Over the last few years, a new emphasis on Dad's role in a baby's life have produced a slew of sentimental foolishness like Look Who's Talking, Three Men and a Baby, Junior and the insufferable Nine Months. But it's not as easy to make a play about babies and their parents--babies, after all, can't be relied upon to gurgle on cue. Little Footsteps is a jumbled bag--about equal parts sense and nonsense--but the Aurora Fox production has some very funny moments and a surprise appearance by a great performer.

Not that this play escapes the sentimentality of the movies mentioned above, but director Derek Munson has incorporated a few interesting techniques to harden the fluff a tad. A large video screen beckons the viewer into the theater with a bizarre combination of contemporary images drawn from TV, rock videos and the movies. The set is the expected baby's new room. The walls have been decorated in an underwater scene; paint cans and other painting gear are strewn around the floor, and clearly there is more work left to do.

A young husband, Ben, enters to cop a smoke before his wife gets home, and he tells us about her--how much he loves her and how he loves to watch her cope with all his childish antics. He likes kids in the abstract but isn't ready for them, he says. Enter Joanie, visibly pregnant. She quickly finds the cigs and disposes of them, lectures Ben on his behavior and talks to the audience about him when he leaves the room. She thinks he'll make a great daddy despite his chronic mean teasing and the disgusting dead-baby jokes he tells.

The rest of the first act is all push-pull bickering, teasing and cajoling. Ben makes Joanie cry, comforts her and makes her cry again in his hostility toward her pregnancy. By the end of Act One, Joanie and Ben split--Nine Months comes unpleasantly to mind. As Act Two begins, the baby's room has been given a conventional redecoration by Joanie's pushy mother, and the new baby is three months old and has just been baptized. Ben sneaks in the window and says Jewish prayers over his little son, naming him Daniel. He has to hide when Joanie's parents bustle in, but eventually he gets Joanie alone and offers to grow up. At this point, Joanie tells him what it's "really" like to parent a tiny baby. And this is where the writing gets absurd; small babies just aren't all that hard to handle, however awkward the parents' psychological adjustment may be.

The best thing about this production is Chris Whyde as the boyish Ben trying to learn how to be a grownup. Whyde mixes Ben's emotions so visibly that we realize what he's up against--how the entire culture worships youth and fun, denigrates adult responsibility and rewards incoherence, inanity and silliness. Ben works in television, so creativity is a sore spot for him; he tells people he's a mortician or an inspector for the IRS--anything but the truth. In playwright Ted Tally's terms, working in television says it all. But Whyde makes sure we care about Ben in spite of his selfishness, so that we can believe his changes when they come.

Catherine diBella keeps Joanie frantic, depressed and shrewd. It's a conscientious reading of a thin role--Joanie is not written as well as Ben, and she whines too much. Judy Phelan-Hill dominates the stage physically as Joanie's controlling mother, and Ray Klein gives a sturdy, engaging performance in the thankless role of Joanie's put-upon father.

Unfortunately, these accomplished actors have to buck a script that meanders all over the problem of parenthood, cutting into the surface a little but never reaching the heart of the matter. It's helpful and important to see how childish adults can be; it's not a pretty picture, despite media propaganda to the contrary. And it's touching to see how people go about solving their own shortcomings for the sake of a new life. But as funny as this show is and as splendid as its last few minutes are, when its surprise guest star appears, there is something just too trivializing, perhaps even cynical, in the signature comic sentiment expressed by Ben: "Parenthood...the unprepared attempting the impossible for the sake of the ungrateful."

Little Footsteps, through May 12 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax, Aurora, 361-2910.


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