Daniel Pearle's A Kid Like Jake initially seems like an anecdote we've heard over and over: Uptight Manhattan parents stress about getting their toddler into the "right" school, jumping through the ridiculous hoops of applications, essays, interviews, and backbiting fellow parents.
But a few more minutes into the play and we see that Alex (Jenny Ledel) and Greg (Ian Ferguson) aren't trying to prove that their son is special — quite the opposite, in fact. They're trying to get everyone to look past what makes him unique.
Jake likes dress-up and princesses, something his father, a psychologist, has no problem embracing, but his mother doesn't want Jake to indulge it outside the home. Judy (Christie Vela), a family friend who's an education advisor and helps families match with schools, encourages the couple to let Jake be himself (or herself, if he prefers). Diversity is the trump card of applications, after all. But Alex is hesitant to label Jake so early and trap him into a decision she thinks he's too young to make.
Pearle further pads the story with marital strife between Alex and Greg, which isn't helped by an unintended pregnancy and Jake's angry outbursts. While Jake is never seen, the story is less about him and more about how society is currently reacting to the heightened visibility of the queer and transgender population. Rather than shoving a truck in his son's hands, Greg is fine to let him treasure a Cinderella figurine. But will he be bullied? Alex wonders. Will he become the bully?
Ferguson and Ledel engage our loyalties in a tug-of-war. Sometimes it feels Greg is in the right; other times Alex is the rational one. The only characterization that doesn't ring true, and it's more Pearle's fault than anyone's, is how Greg's psychological expertise is continually dismissed. Ignored, even, though he thoughtfully suggests Jake might benefit from therapy. Alex thinks her son shouldn't air their family's private issues with a stranger, even though that's the premise of her husband's livelihood.
Director Matthew Gray smoothly moves the action from Greg and Alex's apartment to Judy's office to a doctor's office, where a nurse (Kia Boyer) tracks Alex's pregnancy progress and acts as her own de facto therapist. Gray also designed the set and sound, and both work well with Aaron Johansen's layered lighting to move in and out of reality.
The play avoids preachiness while still addressing a hot-button topic. It also avoids conclusion, which is good for the conversation but perhaps not so much for the play.
Second Thought Theatre's production of A Kid Like Jake runs at Bryant Hall through July 23.