For the final production of its 2018/19 season, Space 55 in Phoenix has turned to local playwright John Perovich for a new play with a title that might suggest a throwback to the sixties, Be My Little Baby, directed by Llana Lydia. While this off-beat, curious, and ultimately bizarre comedy has nothing to do with The Ronettes or their 1964 hit, the meaning could easily apply to young Johnny’s mom and her unhealthy, overprotective attachment to her little cowboy.
Set in Arizona during the last week of October, when it comes to her boy Johnny (Christian Boden), single parent (RC Contreras) is clingy, to say the least. “If I’m guilty of anything, it’s loving you too much,” declares mom. Johnny is home-schooled. His older sister Heather (Marcella Grassa) has far more freedom. Not only can she go to regular school, but she can also date while Johnny has to stay at home. Plus, because of her boy’s habit of peering through his bedroom window to catch a glimpse of neighbor Wendy (Juliet Rachel Wilkins) across the way, Johnny’s mom wants him to stay in the basement. “But you like the basement,” mom insists when Johnny objects. “What made you love me in a lock-me-in-the-basement kind of way?” the boy asks.
To escape the drudgery of having to stay at home, hidden away, day after day, Johnny, who favors cowboys and has a habit of singing the Bonanza theme, has an imaginary friend who tends to turn up in the basement just when Johnny needs the company the most. LaRue (Gerald Thomson) is the man in black, a cowboy who rides the plains… well, the astral planes, and he’s taught Johnny how to do it. Together, when the boy needs to get away the most, he and LaRue sit quietly in the basement, close their eyes, concentrate, and leave the confines of the area, free to float away in slo-mo among the stars.
Enter the story’s villain, schoolboy Bobby (Matt Clarke) who sweet talks his way into Heather’s life with nothing on his mind other than bad intentions. Bobby is the kind of bad guy who enjoys himself at everyone’s expense. And there’s something else. Like Johnny, Bobby can also project himself into the astral plane. When Johnny realizes that his sister’s new boyfriend may actually cause the family harm, there’s only one thing the little cowboy can do to save Heather, but it’ll involve an imaginary friend, some astral-projection, cowboy grit, some beans and hot dogs for supper, and a serving of some celebratory pancakes to wrap things up.
Clearly, with a plot like that, the business at hand is not going to be normal. While no character has anything amusing to say – the script has no quotable lines or snappy dialog, and no one is naturally funny – the humor of the piece comes from the absurd situation and of seeing how director Lydia has both Johnny and LaRue flounder among the projected stars in mock slow-motion. It’s not great theater, but it does look funny. The play itself lumbers in performance with some of the actors either hesitating before speaking or seemingly pausing for longer than they should, grinding any real sense of comic timing to a halt, though each time Clarke’s bullying Bobby enters, the actor injects a fresh dose of adrenaline into the proceedings that continually livens everything up.
Plus, there’s one other thing, and it’s even stranger than the synopsis above. In addition to the cast of earthly humans and one imaginary friend, there’s also an odd seventh character who saunters on at the opening as if he’s the play’s silent MC. With a wave of his arm, he begins the proceedings, then ascends to an upper level where he remains, observing. Depending on where you’re sitting, unless you make a point of cranking your neck slightly, you may forget about him altogether. He’s the Celestial Voyeur (Raymere Carter) who with some beautifully designed masks courtesy of Dain Q. Gore and Hannah Walsh, is meant to be the all observant moon. Most of the time you’ll forget he’s there, and when you do notice him, you’re never entirely sure what he’s actually doing.
This modest, low-budget production, played out against Paul Filan’s painted backdrop of a hot Arizona sun sinking into the desert, is the kind of unconventional storytelling that you either warm to for its eccentric, experimental flakiness, or after a few minutes you’re already wondering how much more of this is there left to go. But this is Space 55, the theatre on N.18th Avenue, a place that has thrived for 13 years presenting slightly askew, off-kilter, low to no budget productions, where new plays like Be My Little Baby with their own peculiar points-of-view are given a well-deserved forum, even if they don’t always work. Plus it serves as an alternative to the more conventional productions in town. But you already knew that going in. After all, isn’t that why you’re there?
Be My Little Baby continues at Space 55 in Phoenix until June 9