The Toronto Theatre Review: Soulpepper’s Bad Parent
Putting it all together, child bed-wise, out on stage, is what we bear witness to first as we file into our seats excited to see Ins Choi’s new play, Bad Parent currently being presented at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. It’s a well-oiled construct, the IKEA-inducing cries of frustration and pain, in this attempt to build something symbolic of what the play is trying to do in its opening act of the new play by the writer of the legendary Kim’s Convenience. The writer is trying his best to assemble something that is as successfully constructed as that earlier play without hurting himself in the process. That earlier play is a hard act to follow, I imagine, but Choi dives forth, attempting to explore the life-changing family dynamics that assault a young couple trying their best to deal with having and caring for a newborn baby. It’s the first child for them both, and it doesn’t take them long to unpack the idea that this baby didn’t really come with a solid mapped-out instruction sheet like the bed did. They stand there, looking at the pieces of what is now their life, and realize, quite quickly, that they are totally unprepared for the task from day one. What were they thinking?
I mean, they just hand over a baby to two young adults right after birth nowadays, and send them, now official parents, on their way to figure it all out. As if it is going to be as easy as putting away groceries. It’s crazy, right? Just ask any mother or father you know. Yet Choi (Alligator Pie; Window on Toronto) dives right in, blasting down the fourth wall with confidence. He bravely delivers something that is quite entertaining and fun, although sometimes a bit repetitive and generic. It plays with the same realistic component, but in totality, it is a very different engagement to his earlier play, Kim’s Convenience, mainly by taking the leads and having them be (and speak) direct and upfront straight to the audience. Like a stand-up comedian.
It’s a commanding formulation, all while trying to cradle and take great care of his keen ability to unearth humanity and unpack the complicated interpersonal dynamics that bubble up within this couple’s real-world arena. From the get-go, we like the two new parents, understanding their hesitation and discomfort, but we also become acutely aware that we are being asked to bear witness to each of their struggles, side with one against the other, like a game of Battleship, and see and maybe participate in whose ships sink first. Whether we want to remain neutral or not.
Bad Parent, the comedy, is a well-crafted and skilled declaration, generally successful, staged and directed with an engaging eye by Meg Roe (Shaw’s Middletown). She delivers the two sides of a baby-born conflict with humor and honest grace, scattering the fierce competitive processes in a comically clear manner much like the toys and such on the floor. Etched out by two solidly connecting actors doing pretty fun and engaging work, Josette Jorge (Mnemonic’s Proof) and Raugi Yu (The Firehall’s Yellow Fever) take their stories to the standing microphone center stage and ask us, directly, and indirectly, who is doing the better job at not being a Bad Parent. They both have a few good legs to stand on in this battle of the baby-rearing adult, but I’m not sure I ever wanted to jump into this crowded kiddie pool as they were requesting. If anything, I felt myself wanting to take one or two steps back and check the temperature of the water first. And maybe thinking, as I watched the war escalate, that it isn’t quite warm enough to want to jump into the fray.
Co-produced by three stellar theatre companies; Soulpepper Theatre Company, Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, and Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE), the 90-minute one-act play that is being rolled out across the country in stages, somewhat successfully navigates the constructed “as is” dynamic without ever losing internal focus, or the actual baby that takes center stage without ever actually taking center stage. The two compelling actors actively and entertainingly embody two roles; both a “parent in the trenches, and a witness to that struggle.” Mother Norah, played arrestingly by Jorge, and father Charles, charismatically portrayed by Yu, are both determined from the onset to tell us their stories; the origin story of their partnership, even if the two don’t exactly match up, and the other one, the crumbling fraught situation we are being brought into; of being new parents to an infant, and seeing pretty clearly that it is not going all that well.
The friction within leads them down two separate roads, apart and alone, bringing on more squabbles than any two humans can honestly withstand. I must admit the chaotic way the two bicker borders on traumatic, albeit sounding completely honest and hopelessly painful. The conflictual dynamic did get a bit much about halfway through, flatlining the emotionality as if there was nowhere to go, especially for this baby-less singleton watching five rows back (yes, I’m basically a happier Bridget Jones at most dinner parties I attend). But it’s a difficult task, listening to two people bitterly engage in a war of words on a flat heteronormative plain, with neither soul wanting to empathetically hear the other or find a way to move it forward and up. There is humor and engagement in the construct, that is true, especially when each actor takes on the secondary more sympathetic role, one step removed from the battle. Yu successfully portrays a kind and consoling accountant who works in the same office as Norah once she returns from her extended mat leave. And the other is the Filipino nanny, Nora without an ‘h’, played solidly by Jorge, who cares for “Mister Charles” in a way that uncomfortably resembles the often mentioned overbearing mother of Charles, feeding him directly from a fork or spoon, in a similar way she would feed the infant child that sleeps (or cries) in the other room.
The battle rages on and on, escalating as each partner starts to turn more and more to their sympathetic counterparts for understanding or comfort. Infidelity is not the play here for Choi, as the contrasting roles help formulate a clearer picture of each of the parents’ unmet needs and uncomfortable complications. In that way, this theatrical intervention is well played, even if superficially exaggerated. But Choi isn’t trying to reinvent the parental-disheveled wheel. Rather he is attempting to play with the hostilities that becoming a new parent can elicit, from the beginning of a relationship to the moment when these two new parents, after being ‘just let..go” from the hospital with a newborn in their arms, with no instruction or guidance, find themselves stranded in a jailed “as is” crib of their own making; exhausted, overwhelmed, and seemingly isolated from one another. Communication has broken down, and the connection that once was there, inside a “Run Run Norah” theme song, has completely fractured apart. Unplugged and discarded. And even if the stand-up comedy within succeeds, the heartbreak cries out, without any way of possibly settling itself down to sleep.
Their child has been named “Mountain” because Charles believes that “the mountains were my way of getting my bearings where I grew up.” A name and an idea that doesn’t really get the absurd attention or traction it deserves. Norah thought the baby was ironically named after a WWE wrestler, although if she really believed that, this strong-willed woman would never have allowed that to happen. Am I right? Yet, when connected, the two have an easy, refreshing appeal. But as they start to split off from one another; Charles into his silent man-child pop music disconnection, and Norah into her detached yet ambitiously engaged career woman role in a world she loves, the play begins to distance itself from the unique, and starts to slip down the playground slide into a more mediocre pile of play toys, destined to be engaged with superficially by most, and to entertain those who can relate.
The characters’ development is ultimately cradled in a combative and competitive tone, each trying desperately to hold on to the spaces that give them strength and pride, all the while attempting to steer us, audience members, to their boxing-ring corner. The writing never swings too far outside of reality, keeping the characters completely recognizable as sub-types throughout. It is some pretty quirky glue that holds this ‘as is‘ piece of furniture together, screwed tightly and wisely together on a well-defined set by Sophie Tang (Stratford’s Rez Sisters), with solid lighting by Gerald King (Touchstone’s Lights), simple effective costuming by Brenda McLean (PTE’s The War Being Waged), and a vibrant musical production sound design by Deanna H. Choi (The Grove’s The 39 Steps), but I’m not sure this glue is strong or quirky enough to play long or deep. Luckily the ending finds its way back, somewhat, just in time, to a place where real emotions and connections can be unearthed and engaged with. The sympathetic side characters vanish into the darkness, and the leads return, back to the IKEA mattress and the mess they mutually created. Hopefully to find one another again.
The idea could easily become a similarly themed TV series, much like Choi’s Kim’s Convenience successfully did on CBC. All of the plotlines, primary and secondary, could add some weight and direction, but in the end, I think it would feel as commercial and safe as any good solid rerun of some other sitcom. For this Guncle and baby-less single man, who never really dreamed of having a child of his own, the material never really found its way into my heart. I do love being the gay uncle to my friend’s two fantastic kids and look forward to watching them grow up to be whomever they desire to be. (One of them, I imagine, might beautifully rule the world one day.) I was there when she was sent home from the hospital with her first, utterly in pain from the birthing process, yet with an infant in her arms that was in need, 24/7. The idea was wildly crazy at the time, but this was how it was done. Lucky for her she had a fair bit of help. Yet even knowing all this, Bad Parent, while being entertaining and funny for the most part, never really found its way out of the crib. It played, wailed, and cried, like any bed-stealing toddler would, stealing our attention and demanding its presence be acknowledged, but in the end, for this gay uncle, the play, never really found its way to offer up anything particularly new or uniquely compelling.