"Medically, humor and laughter have been shown to physically help people to cope with the tensions of modern life," says the character of the nanny in "Baby With the Bathwater," Christopher Durang's black comedy about the do's -- and especially the dont's -- of child-rearing.
The tone of Fells Point Corner Theatre's production is established with the first glimpse of the brightly colored, cartoon-like set. Though most of the furniture is painted on the walls, it defies logic; occasionally a three-dimensional drawer pops open, or a lamp actually lights up.
Co-designed by Jim Slivka and Jim Sizemore, this set is a fitting metaphor for Durang's humor, which can be as silly as the funny pages or as dark as the abyss, and frequently is both at once.
The plot concerns an alcoholic father and a neurotic mother who give birth to a son, whom they name Daisy and rear as a girl -- primarily because they feel it would be rude to examine his genitals.
Much of the comedy derives from the unexpected appearance of the bizarre in seemingly ordinary situations; this is a world in which "Mommie Dearest" is deemed a fitting bedtime story for an infant. It's a tenuous balance to achieve, and one that is not always maintained by Steve Goldklang's direction.
For instance, Kimberley Lynne's generally overwrought performance as neurotic Mom sacrifices much of the sense of the unexpected. However, her histrionics contrast nicely with the excessive restraint of Tom Lodge, whose depiction of inebriated Dad occasionally borders on the comatose.
By far the wackiest performances are those of Beth Sawyer and Trisha Blackburn in a variety of roles. The latter is particularly funny as the aforementioned nanny -- a winking, wicked twin of Mary Poppins, who seems more likely to use her umbrella to ward off nasty toddlers than nasty weather.
We don't actually meet poor, misguided Daisy until the late going. By then, the character -- played by Patrick (PJ) Johnson with an abundance of politeness and likability -- is a confused, maladjusted young man consulting a psychiatrist.
Although this climactic scene is overly pedantic, it effectively and comically drives home Durang's central point about growing up in a dysfunctional family (a repeated theme in his work). "We know you had a rough start, but PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!" the voice of the unseen psychiatrist bellows. "You can't blame [your parents] forever. MOVE ON WITH IT!"
Fells Point Corner's production is like a fun house ride through the tenets of Adult Children of Alcoholics, but those tenets come through intact and with an abundance of laughter. Durang is also the author of the play, "Beyond Therapy"; however, in "Baby With the Bathwater" he provides some of the most entertaining therapy since the days when, as a toddler, I crayoned the pages of my mother's copy of Dr. Spock.
'Baby With the Bathwater'
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Oct. 25.
Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.
Call: (410) 276-7837.