People who live in Manhattan often have challenges that those of us in the flyover states don't. For instance, going to a Home Depot to pick up a dehumidifier can be a daunting task when you don't have a car and take the subway everywhere. If you have a car, hunting down an affordable parking lot or finding a space on the street can be a mind bending chore.
And if you have a child, where-oh-where will he or she go to school if you don't care for the public options? For upscale parents in The City, this is a matter of urgent importance, as displayed in A Kid Like Jake by Daniel Pearle, now at None Too Fragile Theater. This is an "issue play" that features a great deal of realistic dialogue, but one that often gets sidetracked by its two dominant topics.
Alex, a former lawyer and now a stay-at-home mom, has focused her highly trained mind on the task of finding the best possible kindergarten for her 4-year-old son Jake. And who can blame her? Little Jake (who is never seen onstage) is bright, creative and — oh yes — he also says he wants to be a girl. He obsesses over the Disney princesses, wants to dress up like Snow White on Halloween, and prefers to play with the girls in his preschool class.
Almost immediately, competitive Alex and her mellower psychologist hubby Greg are embroiled in conversations about how to get Jake into the toniest school on the island. Of course, price is an object since some of those enclaves of learning can cost upwards of 40 grand a year. It's all about strategizing, so Alex leans on her friendship with Judy, an experienced woman on the school scene, who offers her services as a placement counselor for her pal's top-shelf tot.
Director Sean Derry has summoned a talented cast to handle this 100-minute production, but even the best efforts of these accomplished actors can't overcome Pearle's talky script, one that only strikes sparks near the very end. The trouble with issue plays is that a well-meaning playwright wants to cover all bases and be sure he's being fair to all sides of the argument. That's a fine way to live your life but it can turn deadly boring on stage.
To wit, Alex's monomania over Jake's kindergarten destination spins its wheels in the same conversational rut for most of the play. Meanwhile, Greg tries to inject some rationality at times, but he quickly backs off when confronted by Alex. As a result, genuine tension is postponed past the point where the audience could conceivably give a damn.
As for the "gender variant" aspect of Jake's persona, Judy suggests that Alex and Greg use it as a trump card to get Jake into the best schools, some of which might drool over such diversity. But Alex doesn't want her son's personality set in concrete like that, thinking that his affection for dolls and dresses may just be a phase.
That's all well and good, except that the play dances around the real consequences at stake for a child with serious gender issues. Playwright Pearle wants to play the gender card without using enough of the whole deck, and that ultimately feels a bit manipulative.
In the central role of Alex, Rachel Lee Kolis provides an intelligent performance, as does Geoff Knox as Greg. But the script never allows them to find chemistry or pace as a couple, since they are only there to serve up one talking point after another. If only we could see how these discussions, which indeed may seem petty or delusional to others, are affecting their life together. Pearle eventually gets around to that, but too little, too late. Even when other aspects of Alex's life are brought into play, including a tragic event that happens in real time, the impact is softened by the pitter-pat of Pearle's real-sounding but low-caliber dialogue.
In supporting roles, Laura Starnik is credible as Judy and Katie Wells is fine as a nurse, although her appearance in another role late in the show doesn't lend much clarity to an awkwardly written dream scene.
The tempo of the show is also constrained by Derry's set design that requires the repositioning of large wooden boxes and platforms, to represent the furniture, before each scene can begin. Plus, there are a number of onstage costume changes (Greg replacing one nondescript shirt for another, etc.) that don't really add much to the proceedings. This fussy attention to unnecessary detail is unusual for None Too Fragile, a theater known for its lean and efficient production qualities.
In Jake, as is true for many issue plays, the big ideas tend to dominate and push the characters to the side. And that's a shame, no matter where you fall on the controversial subjects of school choice or gender identity.
A Kid Like Jake
Through March 26 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron, 330- 962-5547. nonetoofragile.com