Dad, Day 1 playwright and actor, Dave Kelly. Photo by Nicole Zylstra
Dad, Day 1
March 31 – April 19, 2014
Dad, Day 1, Dave Kelly’s confessional monologue about his reflections on parenting brought about by the birth of his first child, begins predictably with the cry of a new-born infant from a darkened stage. When the lights go up, we see Dave in what looks like a garbage strewn outdoor hospital parking lot (sloppily conceived by Terry Gundvordahl) looking for his car just a short while after he and his wife have welcomed their son, John, into the world. From the cliché and sit-commy patter that follows (Are these booties or socks? The scramble story trying to make it to the delivery room, the gushes of joy at becoming a Dad) it seems that Dad, Day 1, under Rebecca Northan’s direction, is to be an unabashedly over sentimental light comedy about first time fatherhood. But just when the gooey-smirky-sweetness of the whole things begins to lull us into sugar shock, something interesting happens. The birth of John becomes a mere device for Kelly to give us a far more interesting, dramatically complex and meaty narrative. One that more or less leaves baby John aside and has everything to do with Dave’s own upbringing and his contentious relationship with his parents.
But to get there you need to wade through about 30 minutes (half the show) of what amounts to Dave doing his best PG- friendly stand-up routine. In it he delivers a series of set ups and punch lines (with constant outstretched arms for effect) on everything from a guy giving him the finger to preferring to set up the home stereo system over building the crib. It’s the unbuilt nursery by the way that’s underneath Gunvordahl’s garbage parking lot tarps and it’s Dave’s job in the second half of the play to remove the coverings, put the baby’s room together and use the furniture as a stand in for items in his parent’s home.
Meeting Dave’s parents in the play is a fluffy occasion. Projections of photos of Mom and Dad appear on what looks like an oversized schoolroom movie screen with Dave saying hello to them as if starring in an episode of Mr. Dressup. We hear tales of how strong, decisive and full of stories and laughter they are. We also learn of his father’s emotional distance and his mother’s extreme devoutness and how both of these traits develop into huge roadblocks in Dave’s relationship with them. It’s here that Kelly finally stops performing and begins acting and it’s here that the narrative gives the audience something to truly pay attention to. Vulnerability and hurt are at the heart of these scenes even when they are wrapped in humorous bed-wetting scenarios that has Dave praying to his mother’s many saints to make it stop. As the tensions between the always sweet – even in rebellion – Dave and his absolutist parents come to a head, we can’t help but feel the child in all of us break a little at the thought of being rejected by a mother or father.
However, the immersive empathy doesn’t last long. It seems Northan can’t leave well enough alone on the dramatic front and instead of trusting Kelly’s writing and performance to draw us into his struggle; she keeps interrupting the action with schmaltzy music overlays. To be fair, she does this the entire show, but while it was simply groan-worthy to have heart-stringy music playing as Dave describes holding his child for the first time, it’s inexcusable to do the same overtop of Dave reading a dramatically crucial and curious letter from his father.
By the end of the show, the device and the drama do eventually meet up again. Will the birth of Dave’s child mend broken fences between him and his parents? Being a true story, I suppose it’s unfair to wish for an unresolved yet compelling ending where neat answers aren’t always available. Besides who could wish anything but good things for the always affable Kelly? But if I had one wish for both he and Northan in this production it would be to take the finger off the corny trigger and let us warm to the ending quietly and calmly without the inclusion of one last tear-jerky manipulation. After all, we may not all be parents but we all have or had our own and none of us need cheap dramatics to feel the emotion of those relationships.
For parents – I have no doubt that many of you will relate to the joy and uncertainly of being a first time parent exhibited in this show. But reflecting back to you what you already know is easy. Making you think about what you don’t know or haven’t thought about is what makes for a good piece of drama. And yes, Dave’s relationship with his parents is a revelation. Put those together (if you don’t mind the schmaltz) and you should enjoy well it enough. SEE IT
For the childless – It’s quite possible that you find the whole ‘wonder at being a new parent’ thing tiresome and unfortunately that’s a large part of the show. But get past that and some awfully hackneyed treatments and there are real family relationship gems to be found. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Even when Kelly over plays the delivery he is a likeable and sweet presence on stage. The tidy arc, the gulp in your throat story and the way no one is ever played as a bad guy may be just the sweet uplifting tale you long for. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – There is no doubt that buried in this play is about 20 minutes of honest, raw, splendidly-written and performed theatre. And yes sometimes it’s advisable to date a lot of frogs to get to the prince. But in this case, the combination of the exhaustingly familiar, the sitcom timing, the heavy-handed emotional manipulation and the unimpressive staging and set design make this particular layer of frogs possibly too thick to bother with. MAYBE SEE IT