In a way, A Kid Like Jake — Daniel Pearle’s inventive new drama Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater — is one of those only-in-New-York plays. Parents obsessing over super-competitive private-school applications, jockeying to get their child into the best kindergarten program; names like Dalton, Trinity, Trevor Day, City and Country, St. Ann’s, and Ethical Culture spoken in reverent, hushed tones; a throwaway reference to $30,000 preschool tuition. (If ever there was a backhanded endorsement for public schools, this is it. Mayor Bloomberg owes Pearle a big thank-you.)
Yet here, Pearle throws a dramatic wrench into the frightening pre-K process: 4-year-old Jake ”likes girl stuff,” explains his mother, Alex (Carla Gugino, in a wrenching, beautifully shaded performance). Preschool supervisor Judy (Caroline Aaron) calls it ”gender-variant play.” Judy wants to capitalize on Jake’s fascination with fairy tales — ”these schools are looking for diverse classes”; Alex wants to gloss over it; dad Greg (Peter Grosz) wants to send him to therapy — not a surprise, since Greg is a therapist himself. We never see or hear Jake, which is actually a brilliant choice on Pearle’s part. Even though the parents’ relationship — and all its flaws — comes to the forefront, it’s Jake who emerges as the main character.
With all the talk of the Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, and Cinderella (Jake’s favorite — the family has seven DVDs, ”even the one with Brandy,” sighs Alex), clearly the playwright is gunning for a happy ending. And if anyone deserves one, isn’t it a ”special” kid like Jake? The plot suffers a few casualties along the way: Alex’s character devolves into a caricature of a shrewish wife; the couple confronts a predictable, oh-so-conveniently-timed health crisis; and the less said of the afterthought-like final scene the better. It takes some of the luster off of Pearle’s burnished urban fairy tale. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)