A Kid Like Jake (at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater through July 14)
Oh, Carla Gugino: We don't see nearly enough of you ’round these parts. In Daniel Pearle's sturdy, stunningly well-observed kitchen-sink drama, she plays Alex, a typically neurotic upper-middle-class parent with a somewhat atypical dilemma: Her 4-year-old son Jake — on the threshold of that humiliating and barbaric New York City ritual known as the private K-12 application process — has begun to enjoy what Judy, his preschool principal (Caroline Aaron), joyfully refers to as "gender variant play." Not only does she see nothing wrong with Jake's preference for dresses and his obsession with Disney princesses, she sees an opportunity: "This kind of strategizing, it's sickening, I know, but I think you might be able to capitalize on it. Because they're looking for kids — and families — that stand out."
But Alex isn't so thrilled about Jake's uniqueness, and not because she's a garden-variety homophobe. She's deeply, even pathologically, invested in the idea of him as a clean slate. Her clean slate. And so begins a degenerative battle of wills among three committedly progressive people: Alex, Judy, and Alex's husband, Greg (Peter Grosz, nailing the plight of the Gotham beta-male in every tiny stammer). Pearle flirts with melodrama but ends up swinging his sledgehammer very daintily, and director Evan Cabnet walks the line soberly, encouraging his actors neither to shy away from nor give themselves bodily to the faint Lifetime network background radiation that's always detectable but never overwhelming. None of this would work, of course, if Gugino weren't delivering such a brutally nuanced performance — every nerve attenuated, every square inch of her frighteningly engaged — of a helicopter parent with a bird's-eye view of everything except the immovably obvious.
Roadkill (at St. Ann's Warehouse through June 30)
When you meet Mary (the remarkable Mercy Ojelade) on the bus that takes you into the asphyxiating world of Roadkill, her name isn't Mary yet. She's a vivacious Nigerian girl of 14, whose parents have sent her to America with Martha (Adura Onashile, fierce as market forces), whom we instantly recognize as a procurer, a foot soldier of the sex-trafficking underground. We are herded into the hot and airless rooms where Mary's childhood is forcibly stripped from her before our eyes. To usher us through the horror, conceiver-director Cora Bissett uses stylized video montages and the skin-crawling talents of John Kazek, who plays Various Male Roles. I found myself contemplating Various Male Roles throughout the show, when I wasn't contemplating self-castration: not just john and pimp, but bystander, passive enabler, casual porn surfer. Roadkill, a London import, is agitprop of superior quality, a hell house for all of us first-world do-nothings. It's immersive and site-specific, and also message-specific. The show takes place behind a townhouse façade on a Clinton Hill street. What's next door? Will we ever know? Roadkill's naked aim is to wound us into caring, to make us want to find out. It succeeds, and we all bleed a little.
The Explorers Club (at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I through July 21)
Like a colonial cocktail fizzing beneath a bushy mustache, Nell Benjamin's light costume farce — one wacky day in the life of a National Geographic–esque society of nitwit dilettantes in Victorian London — tickles harmlessly, thanks in large part to its sparkling assemblage of comic talent. Carson Elrod delights as a blue-painted "savage" with undiscovered talents as a bartender; Steven Boyer and Brian Avers trade apoplexies as experts in guinea pigs and cobras, respectively (trouble is brewin'!); David Furr is the alpha explorer, a boldly moronic cocksman who's always the sole survivor of his expeditions. And the great John McMartin is on hand as a fulsome, noxious professor of biblical science. The plot, such as it is, involves the club's first female applicant (Jennifer Westfeldt, shouldering a bit too much of the un-fun story baggage) and its nebbishy, botanically minded acting president (Lorenzo Pisoni), a man who's clearly hung like a ficus leaf but must find his inner jackfruit. We don't care: The real joy is in watching these performers, abetted by director Marc Bruni, spin Benjamin's abundant if airy cleverness into comic gold. The centerpiece: an escalating act of extreme mixology that's practically a show in itself. Ah, the British Empire: a horror that's always good for an anachronistic laugh. Makes you wonder what sort of cocktails someone will eventually make about us.