A Kid Like Jake
In the opening moments of "A Kid Like Jake," two doting but frazzled parents, Alex (Carla Gugino) and Greg (Peter Grosz), are discussing their son’s educational prospects. They fret about interviews and test scores, and pore over a potential admissions essay.
The scene should strike a chord with anyone who has ever worried about the competitive nature of academia. But if you assume they’re talking about college, you’re probably unfamiliar with this couple’s world of Manhattan privilege, where children entering kindergarten (or, rather, their parents) vie for spots at elite private academies that are often harder to get into than the top law schools.
Alex and Greg’s son Jake is four years old. He can multiply up to the tens and knows all fifty states on a map. More importantly, though, he loves to play dress up and is obsessed with Cinderella. Initially, this isn’t much of an issue for his liberal parents; if anything, Alex only becomes concerned when the principal at Jake’s preschool (itself a highly coveted and competitive institution) suggests they use it as a selling point.
"You have to realize these schools are looking for diverse classes," says the ever-pragmatic Judy (Caroline Aaron). "This kind of strategizing -- it’s sickening, I know, but I think you might be able to capitalize on it."
"I just think he should get a clean slate," Alex later protests. "I don’t want to send him off to kindergarten labeled as anything."
Lines like these ultimately set the tone for the proceedings. "A Kid Like Jake" could have easily been a broad satire about education and parenting among coastal elites, and while there are some funny moments to this effect, the play is also a full-bodied drama about decent people just trying to do right by their son.
Newcomer Daniel Pearle partially based the script on his experience tutoring on the Upper East and West sides of Manhattan. His time spent dealing with parents and administrators in the crème de la crème of New York schools comes through in the incredibly realistic dialogue, as well as the depth of each of the three major characters. (A minor fourth role, a nurse played by Michelle Beck, feels somewhat wasted -- at least until the penultimate scene, when the otherwise naturalistic story takes a turn for the surreal.)
Pearle wisely avoids jumping to any definitive conclusions about behavior like Jake’s, but Alex and Greg’s tolerance is finally tested when they learn that their son may in fact be transgendered. Moreover, the boy’s "gender variance" issues begin to cause concern during his supervised visits to prospective classrooms, where students begin teasing him and he lashes back out.
The parameters of live theater being what they are, the title character remains unseen throughout the production. It’s a testament to both the writing and the acting that Jake’s presence is so fully realized, as well as the fact that his family is so empathetic -- even when many of their problems fall into the "first world" category.
Alex’s refusal to even consider public school might not endear her to the audience, but her undying devotion to her child certainly will.
"A Kid Like Jake" runs through July 14 at Claire Tow Theatre, 150 West 65th Street. For information or tickets, call 866-276-4887 or visit http://www.broadway.com/shows/kid-jake/