What appears at first to be a satire on the desperate gamesmanship of getting a four-year-old admitted into one of New York City’s elite private schools turns into an increasingly human struggle for one family in Daniel Pearle’s A Kid Like Jake, now playing at the Claire Tow Theatre at Lincoln Center.
The play, well directed by Evan Cabnet, opens on Alex (played with an edgy neuroticism by Carla Gugino), who has given up a legal career to be a stay-at-home mom. She is struggling with a pile of applications to a dozen $40,000-a-year schools—Dalton, Ethical Culture, Trinity, and the like—believing with absolute certainty that her son’s entire future hangs on her choosing just the right strategy to get him admitted. “After that,” she tells her husband Greg (a fine performance by Peter Grosz), “our job is done.”
But there is more to getting in than filling out forms. The sticking point is the extent to which she can get their son Jake to game the system as well, to present himself in the best light through high marks on admissions tests, interviews, and observations at his current pre-school.
Jake, an only child who has been hovered over since he came into the world, does not necessarily fit the profile of perfection. Although he is sufficiently smart, creative, and imaginative, he is also stubborn and fiercely independent, and he does not always play nicely with the other children at the pre-school run by Judy (richly realized by Caroline Aaron), who has been helping Alex work through the application process.
Then there is the matter of Jake’s predilection for all things Cinderella and playing dress-up.
Judy thinks they should highlight Jake’s “gender-variant play” as a form of self-expression that would appeal to the schools’ interests in diversity. Greg, a psychoanalyst, is wondering if they need to take Jake to see a therapist to help him sort through his “gender confusion.”
Alex, on the other hand, is conflicted—and it is her struggle with her personal demons that lifts the play out of the realm of easy jokes about overweening ambition and progressive parents who live vicariously through their children.
What drives Alex is a pressing and self-perceived need to redeem herself by getting things right with her son. Her inner turmoil, the sources of which are revealed over the course of the play, may not be the stuff of grand tragedy, but they represent the layers of life’s vicissitudes that we all can recognize and many of us can identify with. They are affecting her relationship with her husband, her friends, and her son, as well as her own well-being, as revealed in a series of conversations she has with a nurse (Michelle Beck) at the office of her OB/GYN.
Daniel Pearle, a rising young playwright with a number of awards under his belt, has done impressive work with this play, especially through his gradual modulation of tone from cartoonish to psychologically complex and emotionally authentic (though, arguably, an uplifting denouement may be an unnecessary addition).
I would like to tip my hat to Lincoln Center Theater for its commitment, through its LCT3 program, to nurturing new playwrights over the past five years. The Claire Tow Theater, LCT3's new home, is a welcome addition to the complex that houses the Vivian Beaumont and Mitzi Newhouse, and I look forward to seeing it thrive in the years ahead.
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