The honorable folks at Lincoln Center Theater have once again been slightly -- though not seriously -- misguided in their aim to reach out to younger and non-traditional audiences with the offerings under their LCT3 program. That's the series featuring $20 tickets at the spanking new Claire Tow Theater atop the Vivian Beaumont. While A Kid Like Jake -- like last October's production of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, which went on to win the Pulitzer -- is perfectly suitable for young and "new" audiences, Daniel Pearle's play makes entertaining and provocative viewing for older, traditional playgoers as well. Suggesting that these two are geared towards under-30s is like saying War Horse is just for kids.
True, the title character of A Kid Like Jake is four, going on five; but the lad, who has a penchant to dress up in garb more suitable for Cinderella and sometimes Snow White, goes unseen. What we get are his stay-at-home mom, an ex-dancer named Alex (Carla Gugino); his father, a sensitive psychotherapist named Greg (Peter Grosz); and their friend Judy (Caroline Aaron), who works as kindergarten-placement director at Jake's nursery school. Yes, the story transpires in the world of upper middle class Manhattanites striving to place their offspring -- against daunting odds -- in the "right" private school.
But the 28-year-old Pearle, who wrote the play as his graduate thesis at the New School for Drama and won the 2013 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for his efforts, isn't merely interested in mining humor out of a neurotically fertile situation. Jake is an intelligent and imaginative child, but there is an additional element in what Judy terms "a kid like Jake." Alex and Greg both see their boy's uniqueness, yes, but a wall arises between them when Judy starts talking about "gender-variant" behavior--and when she suggests that the parents might profitably address this on Jake's kindergarten applications.
Complications arise as Alex -- who has recently miscarried -- becomes pregnant again, and as Jake begins acting out. (He hurls his favorite Cinderella figurine at his grandmother, which does serve to attract everybody's attention.) The marriage becomes embattled, with the couple throwing bitter and hurtful darts at each other. The apparently long-and-warm relationship with Judy becomes estranged as well.
Pearle works through the interpersonal relationships while taking advantage of the perhaps easy humor of New York private school admissions. While the young playwright has not himself been subject to the application game, I can tell you -- as a private school parent -- that he is right on target. (Disclaimer: my son happily attends the school at the top of Jake's list.) Yes, it is a crazy situation, and one which might well seem ridiculous to non-natives. College admissions are just as difficult, true; but there's something extra severe about forcing four-year-olds to take aptitude tests. Jake scores an excellent 96 on his ERBs; that in itself, it turns out, is not enough.
Pearle has something more provocative on his mind, though. At what point do parents start to recognize their child's nature? When, and in what manner, is it proper to react? (Jake's parents allow him to wear princess clothing in the apartment but not outside, although they haven't yet provided him with a reason why -- or verbalized that girls' stuff is in some way "wrong.") How and at what point can one support a kid like Jake without pushing him or her to deal with a phase that might turn out to be impermanent?
The playwright has been matched with a young -- though not quite so young -- director in Evan Cabnet, who earned points for The Dream of the Burning Boy (at the Roundabout's developing artist series) and Warrior Class (at the Second Stage equivalent) but lost some of them for The Performers (at the Longacre). The young designers -- Andromache Chalfant on sets, Japhy Weideman on lights -- do a good job as well, adapting their unit set to multiple locations using, among other devices, a forbidding, abstract cityscape that draws focus during scene changes.
As Alex, Ms. Gugino -- who was memorable in the Brian Dennehy Desire under the Elms and the Rosemary Harris/Jim Dale Road to Mecca -- reminds us just how strong an actor she is, leaving us wanting to see more. Peter Grosz, from TV's Colbert Report, gives us the many sides of a father who never takes his son out to play catch in the park, while Caroline Aaron provides much of the humor and some of the anguish as the supportive-but-realistic school administrator.
LTC3 presents their offerings for limited runs of six weeks, which is fine for difficult plays with limited appeal. For items like A Kid Like Jake or the prize-winning Disgraced, though, that's not nearly enough. (The early LCT 3 offering 4000 Miles, by Amy Herzog, did return for a second, crowd-pleasing run at the larger Mitzi Newhouse.) Jake is presently scheduled through July 14, with perhaps room for a one or two-week extension. Try to catch it.