Horror Is His Formula: “The Baby,” Live On Stage At The Lex


Germaine (Natasha Charles Parker) feeds her brother Baby (Torrey Halverson), who wears a diaper and sleeps in a crib; looking on are (from left) sister Alba (Maison Leigh), Mama Wadsworth (Frank Blocker), and social worker Ann Gentry (Jana Wimer) in a scene from The Visceral Company’s production of THE BABY, now playing at the Lex Theatre.


Things were different in the 1970s. For those born too late, it’s hard for those of us born almost too late to explain it. It wasn’t just whacka-whacka porno guitar music (though there was that), and it wasn’t just the last few years before the hippies became the yuppies. (Yeah, that’s how it works, kids. Gentrification, it’s not just for neighborhoods!) The thing about the 1970s—one of the things about it—was the sense that people had lost their innocence, and the ones who weren’t wallowing in it were downright pissed off about it.

Certainly, the idea of a man-child as the center of a female-driven cast, with all its psychosexual overtones, fit in just fine with this gestalt. Thus, THE BABY (1973, directed by Ted Post, who later helmed THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT, MAGNUM FORCE and episodes of ARK II).

The aftermath of the “anything goes” revolutionary outlook of the late 1960s was a leery sense of “really, anything goes?” in the 1970s, and this queasy little exploitation flick expressed this, questioned it and capitalized on it. Like any good exploiter, THE BABY was about both titillation and recoiling in disgust from titillation—and to a certain very primitive degree, it asked a few questions about gender relations. (A very primitive degree…)

The thing about early experimentation with ideas is that it often looks grotesque and silly, particularly when it’s framed in the intent to shock and arouse the audience. So THE BABY is perfect fodder for outrageous satire, which is exactly what gets served up in the current Best of Fringe extension of Visceral Company’s stage adaptation (Fridays and Saturdays at the Lex in Hollywood, through August 31.)

Having seen the original film, and being aware that its cult following includes both highly amused devotees of lowbrow cinema and a selected fetishistic subculture (I’m not saying you shouldn’t Google “manbaby,” but I’m certainly not suggesting you do, either), I was surprised at just how funny and how solid a production director-adapter Dan Spurgeon and the cast put on. Funny, because there’s a real ridiculousness inherent in the premise, and solid, because Dan Spurgeon, producer Drew Blakeman, and all the VC folks just don’t seem to know how to do anything without thinking. Damn that brain-usage…

Yes, it’s a show about a bizarre mother (Frank Blocker as Mama Wadsworth) and her freaky daughters (Maison Leigh as promiscuous Alba, Natasha Charles Parker as bisexual Germaine—no relation to Germaine Greer, of course) and their “retarded” youngest child Baby (weirdly charming Torrey Alverson, full of uncanny baby vocalizations and dead-on facial expressions), who is a teenage boy that behaves like a newborn. It’s the story of a social worker named Mrs. Gentry (Jana Wimer, mocking Anjanette Comer’s original performance with aplomb) and her mother-in-law Judith (the ever-reliable Karen Kahler) trying to save Baby. (Or are they?) And it’s a tale of secrets, innuendo, sex, murder and revenge.

It’s camp, served up in both high and low forms: Dry, straight-faced readings of outrageous lines (there’s both gravity and comedy in Blocker’s Mama), and wild mugging (Natasha Charles Parker and Jana Wimer seem to be in Olympic Eyerolling competitions, and both get plenty of laughs) that mimics the “naturalistic” acting of an earlier time. If you’re ready to poke some fun at ‘70s cheese, this show has what you want in spades.

Yet while the laughs are spread around among the cast (the basic story is kind of creepy and disgusting which makes it great for humor), Mama and Mrs. Gentry provide a weird, flickering center of real drama. Blocker’s overdone makeup and costume don’t hide an actor with a genuine sense of the reality of his character and why she lives the way she does (three kids by three dads—do the math, it adds up to one lonely heart); Wimer’s melodramatic comedy takes don’t completely dilute the odd, not-quite-maternal urges in her character’s psyche. There’s almost a sense of class conflict—that the Wadsworth brood and baby represent some sort of working-class family unit cobbled together out of nothing, and that Mrs. Gentry is an apparently normalizing force that wants to pluck Baby up from the lower depths and bring him into her middle-class world. Of all the Wadsworth women—beyond the warped Germaine or the self-absorbed Alba—only Mama seems to understand the threat to their self-worth if Mrs. Gentry claims Baby for the “normal” world. Her world may be sick and wrong in a thousand ways… but she built it herself, and she’s not going to lose it to some do-gooding architect’s wife who wants to pluck up the best and leave the rest behind.

But perhaps this is overthinking it all. There’s no doubt that the costumes (Erica D. Schwartz and The House of Kenneth Allen) are marvelous and evoke the period, the music by Neel Boyett is hilariously awful (including terrible elevator-music versions of ‘70s tunes like “Brandy” and “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”), and the supporting cast add a little extra ham to their performances (kudos to Brian Prisco, Jonica Patella, Samm Hill, Starskee Suave and Devin Sullivan). The whole thing is treated as a live staging of a grindhouse film, with all the trimmings, and it’s given a dose of entertaining self-awareness and sharp wit.

In an era when people complain (and rightly so) of movies with meaningless twists added only to seem clever, the film version of THE BABY gives us a set of revelations that actually add to the characters in disturbing ‘70s exploitation fashion—and the stage adaptation takes that, puts it on display, and adds its own sense of self-aware fun. Part laughable over-the-top shocker, part throwaway thinkfest, the Visceral Company’s production of “The Baby” is good fun—and if you’re not careful, you might just think or feel something, too. See it now at the Lex Theater in Hollywood. It’s not for nothing that “The Baby” has been held over from its hit run during the Hollywood Fringe festival…