Tina Howe says she's finally come to realize that she writes two kinds of plays: "White Gloves plays, where I'm all decked out in my white tea clothes, and Bare Hands plays, where I take off those gloves."
In the White Gloves contingent, which puts the microscope on "WASPy Brahmins on the way out" - the genre most producers and directors "are comfortable with" - she lists Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances and Pride's Crossing. The Bare Hands batch includes One Shoe Off, Rembrandt's Gift, The Nest (her very first play, "which I won't let anyone read") and a drama that has been 33 years in the birthing - well, the after-birthing - and is itself called Birth and After Birth.
In the playwright's words, "no self-respecting theatre would touch it" for the first 22 years of its existence, though various admirers gave it illegal exposure here or there. Finally, in the mid-nineties, it stood forth in its own right in productions in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Now at last it has reached New York under the direction of Christian Parker at the Atlantic Theater on West 20th Street.
Birth and After Birth is a wildly comic tale that explores the joys and terrors of birth and parenthood. Sandy and Bill have been up all night preparing a birthday party for Nicky, their rambunctious, four-year-old son. Desperate to impress, Sandy and Bill frantically ready the house for their party guests, Jeffrey and Mia, childless anthropologists who study primitive children in far-flung places. The party spins out of control as each couple tries to convince the other of their social and personal superiority. Out of control indeed, and scary - with none of it quite so scary as Nicky himself, a voracious, demanding monster-child played at the Atlantic by Jordan Gelber.
Lounging in her Upper West Side apartment, slim, striking, long-legged Tina Howe says, "I'll tell you why I started it. When my husband and I [he's NYU Tisch School of the Arts professor Norman Levy] had been married five years and not had a child, my German sister-in-law - my brother's first wife - said, 'Tina, zu are not a voman until you haff a child.' I was so horrified and appalled that I thought: 'I have to write a play to deal with this.'"
She was still toiling away on it on the day - a few years and two children later - she found herself in a women's-consciousness group in upstate New York listening to a bunch of other young mothers expressing their "collective terror in having babies" - something she herself had in no way experienced.
"When it came my turn to speak, I said, 'I'm really having trouble with the second act of my play.'" They jumped down her throat, said she was just there to spy on them, steal their experiences. "I said, 'Look, I love motherhood, but writing these goddamned plays is so hard' - and I left the group."
But the rearing of her Nicky - a voracious, demanding playscript called Birth and After Birth, had just begun.