Saying anything even slightly negative about Ken Ludwig's ultra-nice, insignificant world-premiere comedy Be My Baby, presented by the Alley Theatre, is a bit like kicking a puppy, but those Scrooge instincts just won't stay buried: A little kicking needs to be done.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with writing an old-fashioned, well-made play, structured to be pleasing and filled with characters who show no dysfunction or psychosis. But all we ask is for the playwright to at least make it more interesting than a generic pilot for a canceled sitcom. Be My Baby is perfectly designed for TV, with quick scenes and plenty of space for sympathetic awws from the audience. Everything is routine and prepackaged. All this play lacks is a laugh track, but that might require some genuinely funny lines or physical comedy -- and that's not to be found.
Be My Baby is comfortable and nonthreatening. This wouldn't seem so annoying if the audience were awakened every now and then by some quirky characteristic or a clever turn of phrase, but this stale write-by-numbers comedy is content with what we've seen hundreds of times on the small screen. Instead of character development and conflict, we get retreads: diaper jokes, fear of flying, chintzy Scots
Gloria and Christy (Elizabeth Bunch and Ty Mayberry) are much in love and getting married. Christy's secluded estate near Aberdeen, Scotland, is run by the crusty curmudgeon John (Hal Holbrook), who "takes some getting used to," we're told. Arriving for the wedding, Gloria's frumpy aunt Maud (Dixie Carter) is an opinionated busybody from London who objects to kilts, the haggis to be served at the wedding reception, and John. They can't stand each other. John calls her a "she-devil" and flips up his kilt at her, and we know immediately they're destined to be together.
Later, Gloria's cousin in San Francisco gets a divorce and wants to put her newborn girl up for adoption. Since Gloria and Christy can't have children of their own, they jump at the chance, sending John and Maud to the States to pick her up. The remainder of the play concerns John and Maud's bickering, their encountering of constant delays as they try to leave San Francisco, their fawning over beautiful baby Miranda, and their general softening toward each other. Then, the inevitable happens: Because of the baby, they fall in love and, naturally, don't want to give over the little bundle of joy to Gloria and Christy. Don't worry, everything (and everyone) falls into its rightful place.
Ludwig has lucked out in acquiring the star wattage supplied by Holbrook and Carter, who work overtime to give this ordinary work a sheen it wouldn't have without them. Smoothing out the play's jagged edges, these two glitter, especially in two short solo scenes: Carter sings a few phrases from "Johnny's So Long at the Fair" as a lullaby to calm a crying Miranda, and Holbrook quotes a stanza from Robert Burns's "My Bonie Mary." For the briefest of glimmers, the characters fully come alive. In its purest form, we see what stage magic is all about.
As the attractive young lovers, Bunch and Mayberry (who boasts a great Scottish burr Sean Connery would kill for) bring a freshness and believability to what may be their unraveling marriage. And all the supporting characters are comically limned by Robin Moseley and James Black, who have a high time portraying cook, attorney, officious nurse, effete waiter and soused pastor.
Tony-winning John Rando keeps the rudderless play on course and chugging along cinematically, and from the crack design team that overlays it with that patented Alley high gloss. Alexander Dodge's scenic design is wonderfully apt, atmospheric and minimal all at the same time. The proscenium is ringed with what looks like the gilded contents of an FAO Schwarz Christmas catalog.
But there's one inexplicable moment that stands out in bizarre high relief, indicative of writing that takes the easy road throughout. At the beginning of Act II, we're in John's hospital room. Only a short time has passed since his attack, but when Maud enters she has undergone an amazing transformation from frizzled prune in tweed into sleek Cosmo girl in lilac. It's as if Ma Kettle has turned into Daisy Duke, and John doesn't bat an eye. With newly colored auburn hair coiffed to perfection, she powders her nose with a compact and crosses those shapely gams like Julia Sugarbaker. Where did Maud go? And why doesn't anyone notice? This will haunt me long after Be My Baby's been forgotten. Oh, wait a minute -- this woeful comedy already has been forgotten.
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