This Bruce Mason adaptation of a Judy Blume novel does nothing to justify Blume's hallowed reputation among children's-literature circles. Set in and around New York City, the tale of Peter Hatcher (Sam Ryan), little brother Fudge (Tate Kernell), and the belabored parents (Teri Adams and Evan Gamsu) is, with only a couple exceptions, a teeth-grinding experience from beginning to end.
Peter narrates several days in his pampered though troubling life. Mom is an art history student hoping to graduate into working in a museum or gallery. Dad is an advertising executive who makes commercials all day and watches them on television all night. As played by 9-year-old Kernell, Fudge is the family's epicenter. And either it's the most brilliant performance of the year or the young actor is playing the most advanced case of emotional disturbance since Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.
From the opening scene, with Fudge sitting dead-center banging a pot with its lid, the child's behavior is in dire need of evaluation. He's preverbal, refuses to eat (except his brother's pet turtle late in the show), cannot follow the most basic instructions, and is in general a monster. The show couldn't be more upsetting if it were a highly charged dramatic rendering of severe autism.
Episodes that ensue include an accident in Central Park, where Fudge loses his front teeth, and the birthday party from hell, where shrill is the starting pitch and things escalate from there. Three-quarters in, Fudge gets cast in a commercial but can't be manipulated to perform on camera. A bribe and a strange humiliation sequence later, he's popping wheelies right on cue.
Teri Adams, as fine a comic actress as there is, does what she can with Mom, one of the more thankless roles of the year. When she exasperatedly says, "How could I let who do what?" you totally understand her frustration while wondering whether she's asking the question of herself. The party scene is the worst offender, though, when Mom has to clean up one child's vomit before another one urinates behind the couch. Luckily, both acts are implied and no liquid is involved. Otherwise, Adams would deserve a nice bauble from Harry Winston.
Playing supporting friends and acquaintances are Todd Miller in several voices (including an overbearing female, yet another stereotype Blume surely never intended), RoseMary Prodonovich as two characters, 12-year-old Ray Laughlin as Sheila, and 10-year-old Keith Smith as Jimmy. Smith unmistakably has talent; he knows where his laughs are and how to milk them. But he also is afflicted with the tendency to locate the louder laughers in the house and look to them for guidance for his next move. If he can rein in his hamminess, he may have other stages to tread upon.
Susie McIlwain and Randall Emery have designed a Mondrian-like backdrop and put before it a series of functional blocks that transform the family's furniture into a dentist's office and a rocky hill in Central Park.
Much is written in the medical and psychiatric journals about children with problems and the unfortunate side effect: perfectly well-behaved yet neglected siblings who often end up with bigger problems. When one child is sick, all the children suffer. This is Peter's burden -- the "Nothing" of the title -- and perhaps Blume knows this. But it is played so trivially, it's hard to imagine where Blume's sequel, Super Fudge, goes from this chamber of horrors.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
through May 14
at Theatre for Young America
Mission Mall, 4881 Johnson Drive