Cinderella scene from "A Kid Like Jake"

Parental panic and gender politics collide in “A Kid Like Jake”

By Elizabeth Elving

Midway through Daniel Pearle’s “A Kid Like Jake,” a pregnant woman is asked if she’s hoping for a boy or a girl. It doesn’t matter, she says, as long as it’s healthy. But we already know this to be misleading. The play’s expectant couple live in a world where toddlers are touted as prodigies and phrases like “the Harvard of preschools” abound. In this world, it’s not enough for children to be healthy. They must be exceptional.

The play follows Alex, a well-bred blonde Manhattan mom (Katherine Keberlein), and her therapist husband Greg (Michael Aaron Lindner) as they scramble to get their 4-year-old son, Jake, into an elite private school. The rigorous application process and the notion of paying $20,000 for kindergarten will be cringingly familiar to some audience members, anthropologically foreign to others.

It’s a tricky premise that director Keira Fromm confidently takes on in About Face Theatre’s production of Pearle’s play, which attracted a full house at the Greenhouse Theater Center on the evening of Valentines Day. The set (designed by Dan Stratton) is an upscale apartment overwhelmed by parenthood. The exposed brick walls are covered in a child’s artwork, the furnishings littered with toys. It’s all evidence of the play’s title character, who is both everywhere and nowhere as his story unfolds.

Almost every line of dialogue is devoted to Jake, but he never appears. We know him only through the fretting of his parents, and the counsel of Judy (Cindy Gold, providing some of the plays funniest and most poignant moments), the straight-talking preschool director who may or may not hold his fate in her hands.

Scene with Judy from "A Kid Like Jake"
Actress Cindy Gold (far right) stands out as kindergarten director Judy, who attempts to calm frantic parents Greg (Michael Aaron Lindner) and Alex (Katherine Keberlein) in About Face Theatre’s “A Kid Like Jake”. (Michael Brosilow/About Face Theatre)

Weeks pass between scenes, and we learn that Jake has begun acting out. He melts down at interviews and gets into fights at school. Maybe it’s a response to the burgeoning tension between the adults in his life. Or maybe it has something to do with what Judy casually refers to as his “gender-variant play.”

Jake likes Disney princesses. He treasures his Cinderella doll and wants to be Snow White for Halloween. He asks why boys can’t wear dresses and tucks his penis between his legs in the bath. His parents’ professed liberal attitudes bump up against their fear of how outsiders will react, and they begin to turn on each other.

Alex and Greg in "A Kid Like Jake"
The pressure to get their gender-variant child into preschool causes a rift between Alex (Keberlein) and Greg (Lindner). (Michael Brosilow/About Face Theatre.)

Lindner is charming and sympathetic as Greg, who tries to keep an open mind about his child’s habits. But Alex cannot untangle her love for Jake from her need to distinguish him as both perfectly normal and uniquely gifted. She could almost be written off as a close-minded caricature. But Keberlein’s performance is so bracingly sincere that Alex’s pain becomes the pain of all mothers. It’s engrossing to watch her realize, while pregnant with her second child, that love alone cannot guarantee the happiness of her first.

Fromm’s Director’s Note in the program calls About Face Theatre “a champion for advancing the dialogue about gender and identity.” In this play, gender is but one of many social expectations that interfere with parental instinct. Alex and Greg live on a rarefied tier of society. But the lessons they learn, slowly and painfully, are universal.

“A Kid Like Jake” is playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. through March 15. Tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for students and seniors. Contact the box office at (773) 404-7336 or boxoffice@greenhousetheater.org for more information.

Photo at top: A beloved Cinderella figurine presents a challenge for proud parents Greg (Michael Aaron Lindner) and Alex (Katherine Keberlein). (Michael Brosilow/About Face Theatre)