‘A Kid Like Jake’ at none too fragile theater is a captivating, contemporary Cinderella story
By Bob Abelman
Daniel Pearle’s one-act play, “A Kid Like Jake,” on stage at none too fragile theater, provides a landing pad for helicopter parents — those cossetting caregivers who hover over their children in order to maximize their potential for greatness.
Alex (Rachel Lee Kolis) has given up a legal career to be the perfect mom and is now fully committed to getting her bright and precocious 4-year-old son, Jake (who remains unseen), into a top-tier private kindergarten.
And by fully committed, we’re talking obsessed.
She sends out applications, which have been written with great care and then rewritten again and again, months in advance. She works diligently with Judy (Laura Starnik), the placement adviser at Jake’s fancy preschool, to best prepare the boy for the battery of assessments that are part of the application process. She neglects her husband Greg (Geoff Knox), a clinical psychologist, who taps his infinite patience and vast knowledge of crazy behavior to keep his wife from imploding.
Despite everyone’s best efforts to act in Jake’s best interest, no one quite knows how to handle the boy’s enthusiasm for “gender variant play,” such as dressing up as Cinderella and favoring dolls over toy trucks. Jake, it seems, is starting to identify as female.
Judy recommends that the family embrace Jake’s proclivities and capitalize on them by going after the private schools’ diversity quota. Greg suggests placing Jake in therapy. Alex casts blame. She blames her husband’s permissive parenting and the allure of Disney’s animated princesses. She blames the subtle influence of Judy’s lesbian leanings. And she blames her faulty womb, which miscarriages children when not instilling them with confusion.
“A Kid Like Jake” is very much a domestic drama about what happens to a family when childcare is turned into a blood sport. But it also raises questions about the current state of primary education and whether human intelligence and gender identity are created by nature or molded through nurturing.
And it does so with an excess of dialogue and a paucity of action, as if the playwright — like Jake — was repeatedly told by his parents to “use your words” rather than act out emotions.
The awkward imbalance of these ingredients, plus an odd dream sequence involving a grown-up Jake (played here by Katie Wells), earned mixed reviews during the play’s 2013 premiere at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York. Many noted that audiences could not find much sympathy for the highly volatile, monomaniacal Alex.
Everything falls into better alignment in this none too fragile production, under Sean Derry’s direction. He acknowledges the issues being raised in the script, appreciates the precision in Pearle’s dialogue, and allows his actors to weigh the impact of their words. But he also insists that their characters be compassionate and conversational. Though affluent, they remain unpretentious and relatable. Derry also keeps the pace of this production moving ever forward.
One way of achieving this is foregoing scenery and realistic set pieces, replacing them with a black curtain backdrop and simple wood crates. The crates are rapidly repositioned between scenes to create an office or a living room, while actors quickly change costumes in the corners of the small performance space. When not rushing back into action, they sit and observe from the sideline.
The thing is, this is not the kind of play that benefits from or is conducive to such metatheatrical treatment. In fact, its sharp contrast to the realistic dialogue taking place in realistically devised scenes is a constant distraction and artistic misstep.
Fortunately, the acting is so superb that it serves as a salve for what ails the script and is absent from the scenic design.
Although the character of Greg is underwritten in comparison to Alex and can come across as quite submissive — and intentionally so — Knox turns this into benevolent acquiescence, which is so much more interesting and engaging. Knox’s Greg may often be in the background, but he never fades into it.
And despite Alex’s accusations and the script’s inclinations, Starnik’s Judy never comes across as manipulative when championing Jake. This is a more honest, albeit less dramatic, depiction and a good fit for this production.
The most remarkable performance of all is turned in by Kolis, who makes Alex and her Type A personality relatable long before the playwright offers insight into her family history toward the end of the play. In fact, Kolis manages to make Alex vulnerable and likeable.
Pearle’s drama is smart, frequently funny and given a particularly good turn at none too fragile. CV
WHAT: “A Kid Like Jake”
WHERE: none too fragile, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron
WHEN: Through March 26
TICKETS & INFO: $20, visit nonetoofragile.com
Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 20, 2016.
Lead image: Geoff Knox and Rachel Lee Kolis. PHOTO | Brian Armour