It’s obvious from the start of this provocative dramedy that protagonist Joanna (Trudi Jackson) is, at best, ambivalent about motherhood. When the baby monitor vibrates with urgent cries of her newborn daughter, Joanna doesn’t hear it. She’s listening to “I Am Woman” at top volume. More such ironies follow as Hannah Patterson’s conflicted characters struggle to navigate a turbulent world of shifting gender dynamics.
Joanna’s soft-spoken husband Robert (Mark Rice-Oxley) is happy to help with the child-rearing. But his hopes of domestic bliss are threatened by Joanna’s increasingly discontented and erratic behavior. Even having another couple over for dinner proves challenging, as Joanna is forgetful in the kitchen and consumes significantly more wine than a breastfeeding mother should. I doesn’t help that the spur-of-the-moment invitees are Robert’s raffish boss Jake (Alan Cox) and his underage cohort Stella (Daisy Hughes). The three forty-somethings spent their university days together, and seeing Jake again provokes uncomfortable feelings for Joanna. The two had had an affair back in the day, and the old embers still smolder beneath the surface. The reunion also prompts the grownups to examine the gulf between the dreams of youth and compromises of middle age. Jake and Robert, once critical champions of European New Wave and British social realist filmmakers, now settle for delivering film studies lectures to indifferent students at a local university. Joanna, a publisher on a mission to promote historically neglected female writers, has put her career on pause because of the baby. Everyone puts on a big show of being okay with the way things are, but as the evening wears on and alcohol erodes inhibitions, darker truths come to light and old contracts break under the strain of frustrated desires.
Educated, 21st Century Joanna, it would appear, has little in common with Ibsen’s repressed heroines. Yet PLAYING WITH GROWN UPS has significant echoes of both A DOLL’S HOUSE and HEDDA GABLER. Women’s role in society has certainly changed, but with progress comes a whole new roster of pressures and expectations. “Having it all” means doing it all: often to the point of exhaustion, and rarely with much appreciation in return. Wisely, though, playwright Hannah Patterson doesn’t paint Joanna as a victim. The power structure may be deserving of criticism, but much of Joanna’s mess is of her own making. Robert and Jake, are multidimensional, self-aware males clumsily coping with their own midlife issues. Stella, at least in the earlier scenes, is the least dynamic member of the quartet. She’s a detached observer who doesn’t seem to want anything in particular, and some of the small-talk beats are consequently low on theatrical energy. The stakes are higher in the later scenes, when Stella challenges tests the tensile strength of the marriage by nurturing the baby – and Robert – better than Joanna can.
Director Hannah Eldinow makes the entrances, exits and revelations feel organic and times the comic and poignant beats with equal precision. The actors are perfectly cast in their respective parts and give passionate, nuanced performances. The most extreme character arc, of course, belongs to Joanna, and Jackson makes the most of it. Watching her psyche teeter, topple, shatter, and then rearrange the pieces into something new and solid, is a cathartic experience not to be missed.
PLAYING WITH GROWNUPS continues through May 18th at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Between Park and Madison in Manhattan. Tickets (212) 753-5959 Website: 59e59.org