Can well-meaning parents let a boy play princess without making a progressive-credentials case out of it?
The title character of Daniel Pearle's comic drama is a precocious 4-year-old, whose penchant for princesses and playing dress-up in dresses causes tension between his parents, who are trying to get him into a tony New York City kindergarten. Jake never appears onstage; instead, he's evoked after bedtime via the arguments between his exhausted parents, Alex (Katherine Keberlein) and Greg (Michael Aaron Lindner), or discussed in meetings the two of them have, separately or together, with Judy (Cindy Gold), the head of his preschool and presumptive kindergarten yenta.
Judy thinks mentioning Jake's love for Cinderella and predilection for "gender variant play" in application essays could, however odious the transactionality of it, make him stand out to prospective schools. Greg, an easygoing (you might go as far as nebbishy) psychologist, sees little harm in it, but Alex—already wound tight with anxiety over both the application process and the prospects of giving Jake a younger sibling—recoils at the idea of slapping a label on what she, perhaps reasonably enough when discussing a toddler, insists might be just a phase.
Pearle's 2013 drama is an interesting choice for the LGBTQ-focused About Face, putting a pin as it does in the idea of nature versus nurture in early childhood, and what effect assigning a "variant" label to a kid like Jake might have. Pearle approaches the questions his scenario raises thoughtfully and thoroughly, and Keira Fromm's production benefits from an outstanding and equally incisive cast.
Ultimately, though, 105 minutes of scenes composed almost entirely of arguments take their psychic toll, particularly when the crux of the fights is getting a 4-year-old into the most prestigious private school. Though Keberlein is far and away one of the most empathetic current Chicago actresses of her age bracket, she can't fully shield her characterization from what seems, by the end, Pearle's painting her fears as irrational.
About Face Theatre at Greenhouse Theater Center. By Daniel Pearle. Directed by Keira Fromm. With Katherine Keberlein, Michael Aaron Lindner, Cindy Gold, Jessica Dean Turner. Running time: 1hr 45mins; no intermission.