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Review: 'tiny father,' a new play about unexpected parenthood, is disappointingly minor key

Fatherhood wasn’t in Daniel’s plans. A freelance event planner for bookstores, he never imagined his “friends with benefits” arrangement with Yuki, a work colleague, would have resulted in him becoming the dad of a baby born 14 weeks before term.

The setting for “tiny father,” a play by Mike Lew that’s receiving its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater, is a neonatal intensive care unit. Tragedy strikes early in this small-scale drama, leaving Daniel the sole parent of this struggling infant, who’s wired up in a clear plastic incubator.

Daniel (Maurice Williams) isn’t sure whether he should stick around. Yuki was dealing with her pregnancy solo, but now there’s no one else to step in. Yuki’s parents live in Japan and are too old for traveling. And Caroline (Tiffany Villarin), the night nurse keeping vigil, is already calling him Papa.

Commitment isn’t Daniel’s strong suit. And Sophia, the name he reluctantly though tenderly decides on for the baby, has challenges that are not going to be solved overnight. She has at least a three-month stay at the hospital before her. And each day, each hour in fact, is fraught with peril.

Hooked up to a computer, she sets off alarms when her breathing slows or her heart rate changes. Her temperature needs to be routinely checked. Feeding, changing and suctioning can quickly turn into emergency procedures. Daniel worries that Sophia looks like Voldo, a knife-wielding, heavily bandaged character in a video game — a reference that suggests just how far off he is from from this level of care-taking responsibility.

“tiny father,” directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, charts the infant’s progress as days, weeks and eventually months go by in the hospital. Sophia requires constant attention, but her survival doesn’t so much drive the plot as establish the play’s context. The real concern here is whether Daniel can summon the maturity that’s needed to assume the role of father.

The outlook initially isn’t promising. But after an early absence, he becomes a staple of his daughter’s care. His reliance on Caroline, a scrupulously attentive if at times officious nurse with two young children of her own, is part of the story. But their lives aren’t meant to converge beyond the hospital room, and the play’s outcomes seem worked out independent of what the characters learn from each other.

Plays built around two actors, like “tiny father,” have an air of contrivance to them. A story unfolds through snapshot interactions, limiting how a playwright moves forward. The locked-in nature of the theatrical situation can quickly exhaust dialogue, and Lew comes up empty on occasion in short scenes that go nowhere.

Daniel’s frustration at having to wait and watch at the hospital translates to the audience. The connection between Daniel and Caroline deepens but their situational relationship is institutionally defined. When issues of identity politics and the medical system are raised in tense exchanges, Lew’s language becomes generic. The characters cough up policy points.

I’m a soft touch for hospital dramas, but the only thing I cared about was baby Sophia’s health and welfare. Daniel and Caroline didn’t involve me enough, and for that I blame the writing more than the acting.

Following the playwright’s lead, Williams and Villarin telegraph obvious aspects of their characters. Williams makes sure we don’t miss Daniel’s paternal ambivalence. Villarin briskly conveys Caroline’s no-nonsense manner. The character setups are what you might expect from a Netflix series engineered for an age of distracted viewership.

Von Stuelpnagel might have directed his actors to reveal contradictory aspects of their characters. But Lew, whose plays include “Teenage Dick” and “Tiger Style!,” hasn’t provided them with enough countervailing material.

“tiny father’ would have worked better on the Geffen Playhouse’s more intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. The production, with scenic design by David Meyer creating a fluid hospital unit collage, lends the impression of dramatic speed and scope. The elaborate sound design team contributes acoustic layers of suspense and worry. But the play itself is premature.

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