Times Theater Critic

When a young married couple still can't decide whether to call their new baby Helen or John--and it's been home for two weeks--then you know you're in a play by Christopher Durang.

The little stranger in the bassinet in Durang's "Baby With the Bathwater" at the L.A. Public Theatre doesn't have any anatomical problems. It's just that the parents are too delicate to investigate its gender. They prefer to think of it as their little baked potato, or some other vegetable.

However, just to be safe, they raise it as a girl, named Daisy (after "Daisy, Daisy, I'm half-crazy"). Disappointingly, Daisy spends most of her childhood lying under a heap of laundry--a device to thwart Mom, Mom is sure. It's quite a surprise when, years later, Daisy emerges from the laundry heap a young man. It raises the question of what to give him on his next birthday. Mom knows. A kilt.

"Baby With the Bathwater" is a cartoon, of course. All of Durang's plays are. The exaggerations make you laugh, which is why he's an entertaining writer, and the likenesses make you wince, which is why he's a valuable one. In this play one also sees the beginning of a certain compassion for the figures trapped in his cartoons.

In a way this is Durang's toughest play. When he lampooned holier-than-thou nuns in "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You" and healthier-than-thou-shrinks in "Beyond Therapy," he was merely dealing with authority figures: parent substitutes. Here he attacks the sacred shrine itself: Mom and Dad. Why are we usually crazy? Because they usually are.

Here, Dad (Edward Edwards) is a helpless-feeling fellow who would rather hide behind the refrigerator than cope with a new infant (or anything else), while Mom (Deborah Harmon) is much too superior a person to deal with the yukkiness of infant care. She's too busy writing novels (unfortunately, identical to those of Charles Dickens).

This leaves baby-poo to the strong-armed care of Nanny (Lu Leonard at her jolliest). Apple-cheeked Nanny belongs to the beat-him-if-he-sneezes school of child care and also hands out rattles laced with Red Dye No. 2. No wonder it takes baby-poo about 20 years (and about 750 sessions with his shrink) to recover.

Most of this (the exceptions below) is enjoyably vicious stuff, in the spirit of the old jokes about Little Willy throwing his sister down the well--so outrageous that you've got to laugh.

Actually the most wince-producing image is that of the kilt, an all too plausible example of the devastating messages that a parent can send to a child without being aware of it himself. I thought of the Midwestern couple in Dr. Joseph Peck's "People of the Lie" who gave their son a shotgun for Christmas: the same one his brother had used to kill himself that summer.

Monsters! But in "Baby With the Bathwater" Mom and Dad don't come off as monsters. Grotesques, yes. But grotesques who were patterned that way--by genes, by their crazy parents, by such agents of society as Nanny. It's not clear that Daisy (Lance Guest) ever comes to forgive his folks. But he accepts them for the flakes they are and decides to get on with his life; he's as sick of replaying his childhood as his shrink is of hearing about it.

At the final curtain Daisy and his girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) have even committed an act of parentage themselves. They are seen nervously cooing over a new little stranger, whom they have ascertained to be male. They'll make their share of mistakes over this brat too, but at least they've got the basics straight.

Sweet. But actors Guest and Tilly don't make a Saturday Evening Post cover over it, thank goodness. There's a tinge of weirdness about them as well. Director Matt Casella and his actors gauge the tone of the scene with absolute accuracy, as they do the scenes where Leonard as Nanny is running everybody's life, ladling out Nyquil when anyone dares to complain. Nobody plays the warden like Lu Leonard.

Other scenes go way off the track. Watching Daisy on the playground, Harmon seems to be imitating a suspicious private detective. Whatever the joke is, it doesn't play. And the scene in which Daisy's school principal (Leonard again) raves about her creative writing is mainly about Leonard's huge blue-rinsed wink and mannish piped suit.

Here "Baby With the Bathwater" tumbles into camp travesty. It doesn't need that kind of broadness, and these players are sharp enough not to need it either. Guest, for instance, brings a wonderful dryness to the role of Daisy, a blend of resignation and limited hope for the future. Tilly is also first-rate in a number of quietly bizarre supporting roles.

Charles Berliner's costumes are droll without trying too hard (save for that wig on Leonard), and Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral's set also keeps its joke subtle: a battlement of nursery blocks that can't decide whether to be pink or blue.

'BABY WITH THE BATHWATER' Christopher Durang's comedy, presented by the L.A. Public Theatre at the Coronet Theatre. Director Matt Casella. Scenery and lighting Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral. Costumes Charles Berliner. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Bryan Burch-Worch. With Edward Edwards, Deborah Harmon, Lance Guest, Lu Leonard and Jennifer Tilly. Plays Tues.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $16-$20. 366 N. La Cienega Blvd. (213) 659-6415.

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