The annoyingly needy Michael often screams at his daughter and is an enthusiastic practitioner of corporal punishment. He has some very strange ideas about children, calling Jessica a "little adult" and advocating reading D.H. Lawrence novels to her to explain sexuality. He also talks incessantly and intensely resents his wife working at home or even taking a phone call. The quieter, professionally driven Judy is her husband's polar opposite on childrearing and obsesses on her fear that she's a bad mother because she spends too much time on her legal career. Judy tells Michael that his daughter is afraid of him. Michael at one point characterizes Jessica as "an attention-seeking little bitch." As the couple bickers, zeroing in on each other's vulnerabilities as only spouses can, a distinctly unpleasant portrait of co-dependency begins to fill in. After one of Jessica's teachers requests a home visit from a social worker, the conflict escalates, with both Michael and Judy saying things to each other they can never take back that will almost certainly damage their marriage.
Though it may not sound like it, there's a surprising amount of humor in Doran's caustic script, and Julianne Nicholson and James Waterston know where it is and how to mine it. Director Jim Simpson, however, doesn't quite get the balance right, allowing Waterston to make the unpleasant Michael excessively shrill and Nicholson to suppress too much of the passive-aggressive Judy. The actors do well, however, at suggesting the casual intimacies of a long-married couple, aided by Doran's choice to set the play on and around their king-size double bed. (Set designer Jerad Schomer provides a sleek one made of blond wood that appropriately dominates the proceedings.)
It's clear from the play's conclusion that Doran wants us to care about the fate of this marriage. I, however, found myself rooting for that social worker to scoop Jessica up and get the poor little girl the hell out of Dodge.
Presented by and at the Flea Theater, 41 White St., NYC. April 29–May 29. Mon.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 and 8 p.m. (No performance Tue., May 4, and Mon., May 17.) (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, www.theatermania.com., or www.theflea.org.