Gender identity in children is a hot-button topic these days. Just last year, the American Psychiatric Association finally removed gender identity disorder from its list of mental illnesses (with emotional distress caused by gender identity ambiguities now termed “gender dysphoria”). More and more, news reports are cropping up about gender-variant children and the prickly challenges they pose to parents and schools — from choosing the proper clothing, name, and pronoun, to figuring out which bathroom they will be able to use.
One of the rare dramas to take on this ripped-from-the-headlines issue, “A Kid Like Jake,” is a sensitive, daring effort by Daniel Pearle that explores obsessive, well-meaning parents navigating this minefield.
The piece centers on a young married couple, Alex and Greg, in the throes of navigating a different minefield — the utterly absurd process of applying to elite private schools in New York City for their four-year old son, Jake. Their insistently gifted son increasingly prefers to dress up as Cinderella instead of GI Joe.
Alex, by the way, is a woman, and I suspect Pearle purposefully chose the gender-neutral name as a nod to the potential fluidity of gender.
In one sense, the play is not about Jake at all, but the reaction — and overreaction — by the people in his life. Alex prefers to downplay Jake’s opposite-gender behavior, thinking it might just be a phase. Judy, the wise, middle-aged advisor at his preschool who is ushering them through the application process, feels it’s best to be upfront about Jake’s “special” inclinations. Greg, who is a clinical psychologist trained in handling aberrational behavior, has a heck of a time trying to maintain composure.
Jake, it should be noted, never actually appears on stage, though his presence is acutely palpable every minute — not just from the incessant, often heated discussions about him, but from the toys and drawings that festoon his parents’ comfortable mid-century modern apartment. The boy is nothing but a blank canvas on to which all project their own wishes, biases, and anxieties. Not just Jake’s parents, peers, and educators, but audience members as well.
As Jake’s behavior becomes more aggressive and prospects for scoring a coveted school less likely, the situation threatens to upend Alex and Greg’s marriage. Maybe Greg should have made an effort to toss a softball with his son once in a while. Perhaps Alex should not have bought Jake seven different Cinderella DVDs. A rough pregnancy complicates things even further.
The provocative work lays bare a myriad of dicey questions. Is such behavior creative idiosyncrasy or a clue to serious gender confusion? Is it best to thwart these tendencies and steer the child to “normal” behavior or to embrace them? But by embracing them early on, might they reinforce the behavior and help push the child in an unnatural direction?
There are no easy answers, and that’s part of the drama’s appeal.
As directed by Evan Cabnet, the production, loaded with debate and minutiae, grows talky and feels somewhat static. Another creative team might have leavened the heavy subject matter with dollops of humor (there’s plenty of material ripe for that), but there’s nothing remotely funny about this “Jake.”
The skillful performances go a long way toward smoothing over any rough patches. Carla Gugino is spot-on as Alex, the distraught, stay-at-home mom trying manically to find the best school for her son, and she delivers the role with an intense volatility. We truly feel her pain when she pretends that Jake’s gender-variant play is no big deal. Peter Grosz is well cast as the effete, ineffectual dad who seems paralyzed at the prospect of having a transgender child.
The raspy voiced Caroline Aaron turns out a layered portrayal as the assertive Judy, adeptly transitioning from amicable counselor to hard-ass as she discloses the sad reality of Jake’s prospects. The role of a nurse in Alex’s OB/GYN office is played with tender restraint by Michelle Beck.
Earlier this year, Pearle and “A Kid Like Jake” won the prestigious 2013 Laurents/ Hatcher Foundation Award, in honor of the late, great Arthur Laurents and his life partner, Tom Hatcher. Tickets to all plays at the new LCT3 stage at Lincoln Center cost just $20. Surely one of the better bargains in theater this season.
A KID LIKE JAKE | LCT3 | Claire Tow Theater |150 W. 65th St. | Through Jul. 14; Mon.,Wed.-Sun. at 7 p.m.; Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m. | $20 at telecharge.com