Few things in life are more stressful than becoming a parent for the first time. In Jonathan Marc Sherman’s new play, “Knickerbocker,” a 40-year-old Jewish man, Jerry (Alexander Chaplin, who played the speechwriter James Hobert on the ABC sitcom “Spin City”) comes to grips with his own fears of impending fatherhood. Directed by Pippin Parker, who chairs the playwriting department at The New School, “Knickerbocker” opens next week at the Public Theater Lab, just a few blocks away from the eponymous restaurant where it is set.
The playwright, who hails from Livingston, N.J., bases much of his own Jewish identity on his connection to Israel. While he has only visited the Jewish homeland once, his father-in-law is Israeli and his grandmother’s cousin, architect Leo Sheinfeld, drew up the first plans for the modern city of Tel Aviv in 1923.
Sherman began writing plays around the time of his bar mitzvah. He had his first plays produced while he was still a student at Bennington College. He is best known for “Sons and Fathers,” a play about two brothers who are still coping with the suicide of their mother 15 years earlier; it starred Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton and Calista Flockhart. His last play, “Things We Want,” directed by Hawke for the New Group, was about three brothers whose parents both committed suicide. (Sherman’s mother took her own life when he was 6.)
Dedicated to Sherman’s own 4-year-old son and 15-month-old daughter, “Knickerbocker” proceeds through what the playwright has called, in a video on YouTube, a “series of sonogram pictures of an expectant father.” Jerry confesses his turbulent feelings to his wife (Mia Barron), ex-girlfriend (Christina Kirk), male friends (Ben Shenkman and Zak Orth) and to his own father (Bob Dishy). The scenes are based on the development of the fetus as it grows in size and occupies an increasing share of Jerry’s consciousness.
Sherman took the play’s title from the deep leather booths at the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill, booths that remind him of wombs. The title also plays on the word “knickerbocker” as a synonym for New Yorker, and on the idea that boys customarily marked their entrance into manhood by trading knickers for full-length pants.
In talking to his family and friends, the playwright told The Jewish Week, Jerry is “looking for pieces from each of them” that will help him to deal with what is “resolved and unresolved, known and unknown.” In the end, according to Sherman, Jerry “goes from a place of being terrified to being somewhat OK and excited, realizing that it’s scary, but in a good way.”
“Knickerbocker,” which is now in previews, opens May 19 and runs through May 29 at the Public Theater Lab, 425 Lafayette St. Performances are Tuesday and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., and weekend matinees at 2 p.m. For tickets, $15, call the box office at (212) 967-7555 or visit tickets.publictheater.org.