No, this is a play about parenting—the kind of indulgent parenting that is the bane of restaurant patrons everywhere. It’s also about the kind of overprotective parenting that makes us of the falling-off-of-things-and-learning-from-our-mistakes generations snicker and shake our heads in pity and disdain at these unfortunate bubble-children we see around our knees these days.
That’s how Polly Parchment—our narrator and the primary persona of actress Dee Macaluso—sees it, at least. A significant portion of my enjoyment of the show, however, is tied to my agreement with her. More than just agreeing with Polly, I like her. She’s a local theater journalist in Salt Lake City, which can’t help but endear her to me. She’s also a no-nonsense 1960s holdover who sings Doors songs under her breath while she gets ready to leave the house. She thinks that her son, Arden, and his “tight-ass” wife Daureen—Polly’s words, not mine—are doing untold damage to their young daughter, Bernie.
Arden and Daureen’s crime is not the traditional neglect-and-abuse paradigm of bad parenting but rather the opposite. They allow Bernie complete freedom of choice and unconditional love, support and protection. She is—in Daureen’s slow, faux-patient drone, also depicted by Macaluso—an “azure child.” I’ll spare you the details of this pet theory, but it is, in essence, a fictional amalgam of nuevo New-Age and pop-psychological excuses for not ever disciplining your child. It centers around Daureen’s phrases like, “Bernie is here to teach us, Grammy.”
While Polly relates her family dynamics and frustrations to us, Macaluso slips between their respective personas with ease, relating conversations and babysitting travails with authenticity. Her performance does not stoop to caricature or stereotypes. She is at her best when depicting interactions between Polly and granddaughter, Bernie. Bernie is 4—at least she’s going to be this week—and full of energy and observations. Macaluso does not for a moment give us the sense of a middle-age woman pretending to be a 4-year-old girl but rather channels Bernie’s intonation and effervescence directly from the nearest Montessori preschool.
Unfortunately, Jensen’s script is not always worthy of Macaluso’s talents. The individual character moments are handled well, and the scene-break commercials for the overengineered and decadently disposable child-care products stacked upstage are among the funniest parts of the show. But in terms of plotting and through-lines, the text falls short.
Jensen consistently pulls her punches. Promising new elements are introduced, and then fizzle without resolution or connection, relegating them to dramatic non sequiturs. We are at one point teased with the idea of a giant papier-mâché head of George W. Bush—though it’s never shown. A running metanarrative, wherein Polly works on an article about the trend of one-person shows in American theater, fails to pay off. Polly’s surprising and moving confession about a wrenching personal decision she faced at one point in her life doesn’t come up again or connect to the plot in any way and, therefore, ends up sounding like a political statement rather than a narrative decision.
So despite stunning performance(s) by Macaluso, the show left me somewhat unsatisfied. Playwright Anton Chekhov once famously observed that if you place a gun over the fireplace in Act I, someone needs to fire it by the end of Act III. Metaphorically, Billion Dollar Baby is filled with loaded rifles and abundant targets. Jensen seems unwilling to have any one of Macaluso’s many characters pull all the triggers.
BILLION DOLLAR BABY @ Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Nov. 7–Dec. 2. 363-7522