STAGE REVIEW : 'Baby Makes Seven': Amusing Child's Play

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Housemates Peter, Anna and Ruth have three imaginary children. But now Anna is about to give birth to a real child, and Peter thinks it's time for them to give up their fantasies. Time to be grown-ups.

It's a decision much like George's in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But unlike that play, which takes a long time exorcising its characters' fantasies, "And Baby Makes Seven" hardly takes any time at all before concluding that fantasies are just fine, thank you. Dream on.

Paula Vogel's play, at Los Angeles Theatre Center, emerges as nothing more than an amusing extended sketch. Although there are suggestions of complex issues, down deep in the subtext, Vogel and director Peggy Shannon appear disinclined to dig below the showy veneer at the top of the play.

One of the issues that's lurking there, somewhere, is the way in which parenthood forces thoughtful adults to examine the experiences that helped shape their own personalities, and the fantasies that--in one way or another--reflect those personalities.

Read the six brief selections from authors as disparate as Mister Rogers and Sylvia Plath, included in the LATC program, and you'll get a sampling of the intriguing commentary on this subject--commentary that the play fails to match, in dramatic terms.

Instead, Vogel appears content to simply entertain us with her characters' fantasies. They're used as comic bits rather than as explorations of souls. They're not presented as the product of impending parenthood; they seem to have existed ever since this trio got together.

We're assured that it's healthy and fun for the characters to carry on as they do, that they're normal people indulging their imaginations rather than seriously split personalities. But we don't understand them well enough to know whether that's really true.

Ruth (Kim O'Kelley) is the most extreme example. We know her fantasy creations much better than we know her. She has two alter egos: a French boy named Henri, and Orphan, a "wild child" who was raised by dogs. O'Kelley has a field day with Henri's French accent and with Orphan's yelps and bites.

In the funniest bit of action in the show, O'Kelley does a series of rapid-fire somersaults across the bed, in order to keep both characters going at once. The fact that we see it through a screen, almost as a visual footnote to what's going on in front of it, makes it even funnier.

Yet it's slapstick, not characterization. We know virtually nothing about the real Ruth--and, consequently, we can't trace the genesis of Henri and Orphan or the purpose they serve in her psyche.

Anna (Valerie Landsburg) is the one who's having the real baby, and she is more grounded than Ruth. She has only one alter ego: Cecil, a child genius, who spends most of his time with Henri. Again, it's hard to track the connection between Anna and Cecil.

Peter (Peter Anthony Jacobs) plays along with the fantasies half-heartedly at best, and pressures the women to find a way of getting rid of Henri, Orphan and Cecil. Yet, near the end, Peter begins to change his tune--and his change is more dramatic than all of Ruth's buffoonery.

It helps that we hear Peter remember a fantasy from his childhood and that we understand that he has a (gay) love life and a dull job outside the house. Though these aren't amazing revelations, they make the absence of information about the women's previous and outer lives all the more obvious. It also helps that Jacobs makes Peter a likable guy.

The real baby is apparently Peter's, although Anna and Ruth are the lovers here. At one point, Ruth's Henri claims to be the father--a moment that might have shed some light on Ruth if it had been developed. But it wasn't.

It's interesting that the women's fantasy creations are all boys; these are not mannish lesbians (or even "virile women," as a cigarette marketer might say). But, again, this isn't explored in the play. If Vogel is making a subtle feminist point, about how boys get more interesting role models than girls, then why is the man the most complete character in her own play?

D Martyn Bookwalter's apartment set, lit rather harshly by Douglas D. Smith, is purposefully ugly (the carpet is especially hideous). It doesn't seem like something these people would tolerate. But it's topped by a lovely panorama of stars that come out often, accompanied by the romantic strains of Jon Gottlieb's sound track; presumably the point is to contrast drab reality with glorious fantasy.

At least the designers were trying to fill in a few details. Now if only Vogel would do the same, so that her play could become something more than a simple-minded feel-good piece of fluff.

At 514 S. Spring St., Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through April 29. Tickets: $22-$26; (213) 627-5599.

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