Can we not talk about Jake for like half an hour?" Alex asks her husband, Greg, in A Kid Like Jake, Daniel Pearle's talky but closely observed domestic drama that opens this year's Studio Theatre Series at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
In a word? No.
The affluent couple is obsessed. Not with the health of their son, his failing relationship or his violent outbursts. No. Their concern is more rarefied: They fret he won't be accepted to one of Manhattan's elite kindergarten programs.
Timely to the point of trendiness, Pearle's work is a niche drama if ever there was one. Smartly written and often engaging, it's also smallish in scope, of limited appeal and might be better conceived as satire — sort of like a dinner party with your once-witty friends who've traded-in Bellow for a BabyBjörn and Barthelme for a Bugaboo. They remain compelling, you just have to adjust your expectations.
Fluidly directed by Seth Gordon, A Kid Like Jake charts the slow disintegration of Greg (Alex Hanna) and Alex (Leigh Williams), a Manhattan couple who — though they try their very best — fail to place their gifted son, Jake, in one of the city's top schools. They are aided in their effort by Judy (Susan Pellegrino), a well-intentioned admissions counselor who vets their essays and arranges Jake's interviews. But things go awry when Judy advises the couple to emphasize Jake's "gender-variant play" to make him stand out from all the other little geniuses clamoring at the gates.
You see, Jake (who never actually appears onstage) is more interested in Cinderella and Snow White than he is in Batman and trucks. His liberal parents pride themselves on accepting their son for who he is — but only to a point, allowing him to dress up in the apartment, but forbidding him to dress as a princess for Halloween. As the pressure mounts, Jake begins acting out, prompting Alex, a wealthy attorney who gave up the job she hated to raise her son, to worry not only that by having introduced their four-year-old as "gay" or even "transgender," the schools are now greeting him with a certain expectations, but also that as parents they may be setting him on a false course. Meanwhile, Greg — sensitive but ineffectual — does his best to follow the leads of both his wife, Alex, and their counselor, Judy.
Although the play is quite thin dramatically — Alex accuses Greg of undermining her when he takes Jake to McDonald's; Alex seems to regard public school as a step up from Dachau — A Kid Like Jake is at its best when charting the minor emotional tremors that eventually reveal the deep fissures of a relationship. Williams is tightly wound as Alex — an otherwise pleasant person who turns on Greg (presumably for the very qualities she once held dear) when she runs out of people to blame. Meanwhile, Hanna's Greg is an emotionally aware, but nebbishy psychologist who works if only to remain independent of Alex's money. Together, they create a deeply believable relationship between two people — a couple which thought they knew each other, but become strangers in their shared weakness.
Meanwhile, Pellegrino makes for a highly competent, even overly confident counselor as Judy, and Jacqueline Thompson rounds out the cast in the role of the nurse. Set designer Gianni Downs makes good use of multi-paneled walls to create various homes and offices around Manhattan, while lighting designer John Wylie uses subtle effects to focus the audience's attention on specific areas of the small set or mimic the glow of a TV screen.
First staged through the Lincoln Center's LCT3 program for emerging playwrights, A Kid Like Jake reveals Pearle as a promising new voice with a strong ear for dialogue and skilled at character development. Drama is clearly his aim, though given A Kid Like Jake's pint-sized dimensions and first-world problematics, I can't help but think Pearle may have a future in comedy.
A Kid Like Jake Through November 16 at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts Studio Theatre, 130 Edgar Road. Tickets are $50. Call 314-968-4925 or click here.
Follow RFT critic at large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.