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In Yeah Baby—the fully staged season closer from the University of Delaware’s Resident Ensemble Players (REP)—we’re at a theater somewhere, the night before the opening of something that may or may not be a play written by someone who may or may not be a writer. The audience eventually finds out about all that, but as the curtain rises, nine actors are cavorting mysteriously onstage in this odd and oddly unfocused premiere by Theresa Rebeck.
Rebeck is a compelling theatrical voice, with four Broadway and many Off-Broadway/regional productions, multiple film and TV projects, and an upcoming summer production (Mad House) in London’s West End. She’s also a four-time collaborator with REP, for whom she’s written three other works: O Beautiful, Fever, and a new version of The Bells. Yeah Baby is dramatically and theatrically different from those predecessors.
The promised premise
Expectation and reality seem to have collided even before this show hit the boards, because one of the challenges of mounting a new play is that a theater must publicize the production while the play is being written. Thus, often the shape of the finished work by a skilled playwright like Rebeck may be different from the promised premise.
This is not a boffo backstage comedy (as advertised) in the style of Noises Off or The Play that Goes Wrong, though it incorporates some of those tropes. It’s something more subversive and illusory: an absurdist comedy, “absurdist” being the operative word. It’s true that Yeah Baby is intermittently funny. But though it’s filled with witticisms and clever wordplay, this script is really an exploration of reality and illusion in the vein of Beckett or Pirandello that seeks (and often finds) skewed humor.
True absurdist form
The as-ever sharply honed REP actors are clearly delighted to be back onstage in front of an audience clearly delighted to see them. The troupe plays actors in a play, identified only as characters who, when they (frequently) drop out of the ersatz play’s action, often forget their real names. Throughout, these are nine characters (one of whom keeps asking for her birthday party) in search of a play. There is no bald soprano (though there is a bald actor) and periodically, each tries to leave the stage—to get coffee, check on the babysitter, or simply take a break from the mounting chaos—but there is no exit, and they disappear into the one or the other of the set’s mysterious balconies.
It’s no surprise that (in true absurdist form) they are constantly waiting for something. It might be new lines from the playwright (Lee E. Ernst) to fill his script’s blank pages, or direction instead of drivel from the egotistical director (Stephen Pelinski), or a path through the rehearsal chaos from an ever-hopeful but increasingly frustrated stage manager (Michael Gotch).
Yana Biryükova’s fascinatingly disconcerting projections, along with often-outré costumes by Candice Donnelly and the show’s pulsating sounds (Michael Keck) and vivid lights (Matthew Richards) add to the unreality. And scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader set the action in a visually off-kilter plaza (reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real) that sometimes turns against its inhabitants.
Grappling with reality
The script is also filled with lines and situations that could be critically turned against its creator and creative team. It takes a confident playwright (and Rebeck is surely that) to talk so frankly about scriptwriting lapses or to give your actors insider-type lines like “this play is terrible,” “you’re making up lines” (surely a writer’s nightmare), and “this is art—it’s incomprehensible.”
Yeah Baby touches on major issues: women in the theater and the wider world, artists and how society perceives them, what constitutes a full life versus one wasted on trivialities, hope and how it’s dashed. But as it swings back and forth between these big ideas and individual dilemmas, it doesn’t always land solidly or consistently on target, a work still in progress seeking its center.
Perhaps the fuzziness is because the production credits two directors—playwright Rebeck and Sanford Robbins, REP’s producing artistic director in his last theatrical outing before retirement. In any play (new or not), the authorial eye and the director’s vision don’t always sync, something that seems in evidence here.
But as the play devolves into the absurdity it seeks to chronicle, there is a standout moment of real connection. The players sit quietly, calming down from their increasing freneticism, and share war stories of memorable onstage gaffes. In a script grappling with reality, this moment detailing artifice-gone-wrong oddly grounds the play with a ring of absolute truth, clearly a message of relief that despite obstacles and uncertainly, we can indeed make it through to whatever lies and lives on the other side of chaos.
Know before you go: this performance includes strobe lights, stage fog, and potentially offensive language. Recommended for mature audiences.
What, When, Where
Yeah Baby. By Theresa Rebeck, directed by Rebeck and Sanford Robbins. $30-$39 (discounts available for students, seniors, and University of Delaware faculty/staff). Through May 8, 2022 at the Thompson Theatre of the Roselle Center for the Arts, 110 Orchard Road, Newark, Delaware. (302) 831-2204 or rep.udel.edu.
All visitors to the University of Delaware campus must complete the online UD Daily Health Check for venue access.
Thompson Theatre is ADA-compliant and equipped with a hearing loop system that works with hearing aid t-coils, cochlear implants, and in-house hearing devices. For wheelchair and other seating requests, call (302) 831-2204 or email [email protected].
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