Diaper Wrath

I'd like to see Kathleen Butler, one of our better local comic actors, perform in her own one-woman show. She'd be swell in Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, or in one of those comedy revues where she could, as they used to say, play everything from giants to children.

In the meantime, I'll have to settle for Butler's several performances in Ensemble Theatre's production of Baby With the Bathwater, Christopher Durang's powdered-and-pinned attack on parent-child relationships. In Baby, Butler plays a demented nursemaid, a brash Bronx housewife and a devil-worshipping school principal, all of them completely over-the-top and each one funnier than the last.

That's no mean feat, considering her stiff onstage competition (particularly from Kay Kirby, who's delightful as Helen, Baby's monstrous mother) and because Durang's dark comedy is hard to sell. His punch lines are so mean-spirited and his premises so dreary that wringing laughs from them takes some little skill.

Baby With the Bathwater begins happily enough. New parents John (Will Hare) and Helen coo and giggle over Baby, whom they've just brought home from the hospital. Within minutes, though, they're arguing--about the child's gender, its resemblance to John, what they should do to make it stop crying. Soon, John is guzzling NyQuil and gin and Helen is screaming and hurling herself to the floor. A little while later, we're joined by Nanny (Butler), a lunatic who appears out of nowhere, shouts the baby into submission and seduces John. Still to come is Cynthia (Maggie Fleck), a young woman whose dog ate her own baby and who's looking for another.

By Act Two, Baby has a name (Daisy), a gender (female) and a host of hang-ups (like the fact that he's actually a boy) that are revealed in a hilarious standup routine read to an unseen psychiatrist. This is classic Durang: Modern civilization is a freak show, an unnerving, unsentimental combination of reality and farce. There's little to interpret here; Durang doesn't want us to believe that John and Helen mean well, but simply don't know how to raise their kid. He means to make the point that many of us are lousy parents, while going after the biggest, nastiest laughs he can get. Along the way, he throws in digs at poverty, male-female relationships, chemical addiction, health care, female superiority, higher education and married life.

The Ensemble Theatre cast delivers Durang's message with great pleasure, an emotion shared by its opening night audience, who responded to Durang's lurid lunacy with an appropriate mixture of disgust and appreciative laughter. One scene, in which John sings to the child (who's buried in a pile of dirty laundry), "Hush little baby/Don't you cry/Mama's gonna give you a big black eye," was met with gasps; later, audience members choked back laughter as Nanny handed her young charge a rattle made of toxic waste, asbestos and Red Dye No. 2.

Despite such depravity, Baby With the Bathwater is Durang's most optimistic play: It ends with Daisy and his new wife admiring their first-born and promising to learn to care for it themselves. I found myself wishing they'd hired Nanny, instead, so I could watch Butler play some more pranks before curtain.

The Ensemble Theatre's production of Baby With the Bathwater continues through Sunday, January 24, at Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre, 100 East McDowell.