Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Inked Baby


By Christina Anderson. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Peter Jay Sharp Theater. (CLOSED)

Much is made of a scene in Inked Baby involving a character speaking to a pretzel. The Daily News's Joe Dziemianowicz and The Times's Charles Isherwood were completely taken in by this scene, while The Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli refers to it as a "jumping the shark" moment. Though the play has a polarizing effect on critics, most agree that playwright Christina Anderson has a knack for writing real characters and dialogue, but her potential is not fully realized and her play suffers from the sci-fi subplot.

The Daily News A
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Chances are you’ve never had a heart-to-heart with a pretzel. But in the twisty new drama “Inked Baby,” an expectant father who’s adrift does exactly that when he pours his guts out to a salty snack food he calls Petey. Here’s the weird thing: The scene doesn’t seem so odd, even when little Petey talks back. Credit talented newcomer Christina Anderson, who’s making her Off-Broadway debut at Playwrights Horizons. She’s a writer who’s unafraid to take risks and whose work defies easy categorization because of that. This 90-minute one-act blends topical drama with a spooky subplot about environmental contamination that takes the story into “Twilight Zone” territory.

Village Voice A-
(Garrett Eisler) Anderson's oblique indictment of "environmental racism" does not make her characters any less tangible or touching, especially when so sharply drawn by the accomplished cast under Kate Whoriskey's mostly fluid direction. The pace sometimes lags and the quiet tone rarely varies, yet underneath the unremarkable surface lies a sophisticated and haunting political allegory.

Variety B+
(Marilyn Stasio) Andromache Chalfant's austere set of rigidly boxed-off rooms tells us exactly where we are in this bleak emotional landscape -- a divided domestic setting where everyone lives in his or her own private little world, safely isolated from everyone else's suffering. If it weren't for Jason Lyons' neon tube lights signaling periodic shifts in the atmosphere, the whole play might be taking place in the womb that Lena (Angela Lewis) has generously agreed to loan out to her older sister, Gloria (LaChanze)... Anderson, a 2007 Susan Smith Blackburn Award nominee, writes with a keen sense of the shared intimacy -- and unspoken rivalry -- in sister relationships. And for all the awkwardness of their roles in this difficult life drama, there is never anything forced about the way Lena and Gloria communicate as siblings... The dual stylistic strains are more unsettling when they force these finely drawn people to do something out of character. While it's understandable there would be some household tensions during the long months of Lena's confinement, Gloria's early and abrupt mood shift from eager mother-to-be to cranky complainant comes out of left field. And while that plot turn leads to some provocative scenes in which LaChanze (a Tony winner for "The Color Purple") can strut her stuff as a sexually awakened adulteress, Gloria's initial discontent is unconvincingly motivated.

Talkin' Broadway B
(Matthew Murray) The title of Christina Anderson’s new play, Inked Baby, which just opened at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, is appropriate in more ways than one. It’s packed with characters so sharply drawn they may as well have sprung fully formed from Anderson’s mind and pen. The infant of the title is marked before its birth for reasons it will never understand and the adults in its life will never be able to justify. And amid the delicately drawn and carefully blended lines that define this look at surviving an uncertain world, a few smudges mar an otherwise distinct achievement. But it’s tempting to want to look past them given what Anderson gets right. Her language seamlessly blends shiny-urban crispness with dark-alley vernacular... Director Kate Whoriskey has provided a stark, pungently paced staging that highlights every terror Anderson has devised, and Jason Lyons’s lights hauntingly lay out the physical and emotional playing spaces on which these people spar. Inked Baby surges with adrenaline, but it would have been considerably more effective had Anderson simply let them fight and unleash their pent-up needs and long-ignored desires in an ring of unforgiving realism. Once they become star hoppers, traipsing across the cosmic significances of their love and their land, they stop demanding you pay attention to them.

Offoffonline B-
(Doug Strassler) Baby then becomes about something very different from what it initially suggests. Rather than debating the bioethical issues of what happens when a surrogate mother is a close relative, the show tackles the issue of environmental racism. The low-income area where these characters have lived may literally be hazardous to their health. Anderson’s play is undeniably steeped in the current state of the African-American experience. The playwright pays literal homage to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun both in her dialogue and, presumably, in the naming of Lena’s character. This is heavy stuff, doled out in quite a palatable manner, but while Baby transfers its subject matter, it never quite reaches any transcendent level. Instead of cresting, the problems of the individual characters in the play give way to the politics of their creator. Anderson is to be applauded for her ambition, but in switching from a realistic predicament to one less so, she loosens the grip she has on her audience.

American Theater Web C
(Andy Propst) Christina Anderson's Inked Baby, which opened at Playwrights Horizons last night, starts of as a delicately and warmly crafted exploration of the complicated emotions that surround surrogate pregnancies. At about the halfway point of this play, which does introduce a playwright of great promise, its focal point changes, and it becomes a play about the health ramifications of environmental pollution. While the corporate dumping has a direct impact on the former aspect of the play – Gloria (LaChanze) may have been unable to become pregnant because of the unhealthy conditions that have surrounded her all of her life – there's a strange disconnect between the two aspects of the play, which though intriguing never fully satisfies.

Nytheatre.com C-
(Loren Noveck) The never-really-explained illness seems to be connected to length of residence in that particular neighborhood; Lena has been away long enough to be somewhat protected. There's an underlying thematic element about what it means to be tied to a place, connected geographically to people, that's intriguing but not fully explored. And this medical plot never really comes to life—its menace seems genuine to the characters, but the storytelling is simultaneously too abstract or stylized (with its big paper tags and scary needles and purposely oblique, euphemistic terminology and non-linear symptoms) and too sociologically literal (traced to very specific environmental contamination from a years-old industrial waste site in a very matter-of-fact, politically charged way that feels out of sync with the rest of this side of the play).

Back Stage C-
(Leonard Jacobs) How do playwrights know their story can stand on its own — that additional plot strands aren't needed to round out the experience? Watching Christina Anderson's ambitious, imaginative Inked Baby, one suspects that neither director Kate Whoriskey nor some insightful dramaturge ever assured the playwright that her basic tale was enough to move an audience. Lacking such assurance, Inked Baby has a surfeit of themes, variations, and metaphors. The production is beautifully acted, and Anderson's ear for dialogue crackles through unflinchingly real characters, but the final effect is a muddle... Had Anderson hewed to her core notion of a wife having misgivings over her sister's surrogate pregnancy — and the efforts of Dr. Marion (Michael Genet) to moderate the emotions rising in everyone as the due date draws near — she would have concentrated Inked Baby's power, especially as Whoriskey succeeds at keeping certain scenes simmering. And while the Odlum story line resolves oddly, it adds a measure of sweetness to the play's bitter undertone, thanks to LaChanze's delicate portrayal of a woman emotionally gutted by her physical limitations. But Anderson's virus idea — and disconcerting images like the medical assistant literally wresting teeth from people's mouths — tips the scales.

CurtainUp C-
(Elyse Sommer) Here's where that heaped high plate starts to overflow and the playwright's efforts to give free reign to an increasingly complex situation and yet keep each character's actions and reactions believable stumbles into shaky territory. The environmental problem that has gone beyond making the water in Gloria and Greer's neighborhood undrinkable turns the familial tensions into a surreal nightmare in which Greer and Ky, both employeees in local businesses, are tested for a strange virus, with procedures that smack of George Orwell's 1984. And if this weren't enough, there's a subtext about Gloria's relationship with Odlum (Che Avende), the owner of a tattoo shop. It's from a tattoo of a butterfuly perched on a history book that Gloria has Odlum ink on her wrist that the play gets its its title —— a sort of reverse surrogate act of marking the baby with good luck, that ends up having yet another, darker meaning. The scene when Gloria and Greer's baby is conceived is choreographed with a wonderful stylized delicacy. On the other hand, the environmental problems are too stylistically over the top. Even without the extremes used to deal with the pollution caused illness, unwinding so many plot threads in just ninety minutes ultimately gives Inked Baby a feeling of being overstuffed yet too short on details to be thoroughly nourishing.

Theatermania D+
(Dan Balcazo) There's a compelling story buried somewhere in Christina Anderson's promising, yet frustrating new play, Inked Baby, now making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. There may even be two compelling stories within this 85-minute work. Unfortunately, the playwright's insistence on combining two stylistically different narratives has yielded choppy, unsatisfying results, with neither storyline benefiting from being linked to the other.

The New Yorker D
(unsigned) Whatever larger plight this is supposed to represent—the institutional neglect of African-American communities, perhaps—is left uncertain in Christina Anderson’s workmanlike script, which manages to make both infidelity and urban plague seem humdrum.

The New York Times D-
(Charles Isherwood) One of the livelier exchanges in this odd and frustrating play is an intimate colloquy between a man and a pretzel stick... The director, Kate Whoriskey, whose fine production of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” is on view at Manhattan Theater Club, seems flummoxed by the play’s disjointed structure. The pace feels leaden, the bursts of ominous music spurious, and the performers never gain much traction. LaChanze, a naturally vibrant presence, warms up a bit in her scenes with Mr. Ayende, but this romantic subplot is as thinly developed as the other elements in the play. Ms. Salter, the co-star and co-author of “In the Continuum,” adds some spark before Ky’s diagnosis. But because the play is constructed of so many short scenes, it is difficult for any of the actors to work up much rapport. Except perhaps for Mr. Gupton and his pretzel. They establish an easy rhythm, but then savory snacks are known to be accommodating co-stars.

New York Post F
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) It's not so much that Christina Anderson's off-Broadway debut defies logic poetic license goes a long way at the theater, where sensibility can easily trump sense. But the play so waffles between lyrical realism and heavy-handed allegory that it ends up in a wishy-washy gray zone. Anderson ambitiously tries to braid together two big issues surrogate motherhood and ecological disaster. As if this weren't enough, each theme is burdened with its own set of complications... Granted, staging this text was a tall order, but neither director Kate Whoriskey ("Ruined") nor her uneven cast have found a way in. Whoriskey, for instance, choreographs Greer and Lena's lovemaking like a Cirque du Soleil number set to smooth jazz, while even a pro like LaChanze can't get a firm handle on her slippery character.

Lighting & Sound America F
(David Barbour) Inked Baby is something of a science experiment itself, in which the playwright, Christina Anderson, has tried to crossbreed a dysfunctional family drama with an environmental/political thriller. The result is an ungainly, two-headed creature, suffering from the twin afflictions of stilted dialogue and implausible plotting. The characters are flat and unpleasant -- never the best combination -- and the decision to use Lena to carry the child is so obviously a mistake from the get-go that there's no chance of any dramatic progression. The "virus" plot -- it is eventually revealed to be a bad case of environmental contamination targeting a black neighborhood -- is introduced in the weirdest possible fashion, with a medical assistant inexplicably swooping down on the characters and grabbing tissue samples from them, as if they were guinea pigs. Several of them are revealed to be suffering from an illness manifesting itself in a dermatological condition in which pieces of their skin crumble into granules of dirt. A demonstration of this sent ripples of unwanted laughter through the audience at the performance I attended.

The Daily News A 13; Village Voice A- 12; Variety B+ 11; Talkin' Broadway B 10; Offoffonline B- 9; American Theater Web C 7; Nytheatre.com C- 6; Back Stage C- 6; CurtainUp C- 6; Theatermania D+ 5; The New Yorker D 4; The New York Times D- 3; New York Post F 1; Lighting & Sound America F 1; TOTAL: 94/14 = 6.71 (C)

No comments: