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Birth Trap 

New work from Gen-Y playwright Jessica Goldberg

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001
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Among the ”good things“ in Jessica Goldberg‘s new play is an infant just born to a drug-addicted teenage mother named Mary (Karina Logue). She’s married to Dean (Hamish Linklater), an emotionally unhinged ox of a fellow who works somewhere 9 to 5 in order to support wife, child and coke-dependent kid brother Bobby (John Cabrera).

Another ”good thing“ is the idea, proposed then insisted upon by their friend Liz (Megan Austin Oberle), that Mary give her baby up to Liz‘s former high school guidance counselor and his wife -- John and Nancy (Francis Guinan and Shannon Holt), an ”established,“ middle-aged, childless couple who live across the city (or, in this production, across the stage).

Liz also happens to be Dean’s lover, so that her bordering-on-belligerent efforts to spare him the crushing burden of fatherhood in a literally toxic atmosphere of crack and poverty come freighted with psychological baggage. (Indeed, Liz has consummated her long-standing attraction to dad-to-be Dean mere hours before Mary gives birth.)

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At the play‘s start, though, Liz has just returned to the yards of her childhood after dropping out of western New York’s Ithaca College because of what she herself characterizes as low self-esteem and self-sabotage. But that‘s a ”good thing,“ she says without a shard of sarcasm, upon running into John and Nancy at the shoe store where she now works. ”You showed me that there were options, opened my world,“ Liz tells John. ”If you hadn’t done that, I would never have been able to come to the place where I am now.“

Selling shoes? Liz‘s earnest assertion elicits a grimace from John, prompting the career guidance counselor to question -- though not for the first time -- the extent of his influence, to say nothing of his abilities.

”I’m serious,“ continues Liz. ”You really did affect my life. A lot.“

”Well, thanks,“ he answers. After an excruciatingly painful pause, Nancy chirps in, ”Well, we should pay.“

As though this older couple, with their fragile, barren marriage, hasn‘t already been paying for a long, long time. Having admitted to a fling with one of his students, all John wants now is to preserve his marriage and find a little peace as his emotional and financial debts continue to accrue interest. All the unforgiving Nancy really wants is a vacation, a camping trip to Maine, but John keeps raising the specter of their credit-card bills.

Goldberg captures the symptoms of marital strain -- particularly John’s rhetorical reversals and withering resolve -- with a keen satirist‘s eye, supported by Guinan’s lumbering warmth as John, and countered by the flinty intelligence Holt brings to Nancy.

”I don‘t care about the money,“ John asserts with hollow bravado. ”I don’t care. It‘s worth it.“

”Two hours ago you cared about the money,“ Nancy shoots back.

After mouthing some platitude about how you only live once, John, poised on the lip of his circle of hell, asks to look at a camping-supply catalog.

Goldberg, still in her mid-20s, is wrestling with what almost every playwright of substance grapples with until the age of about 40 -- what it means to grow up. (At middle age, playwrights generally shift their interest to what it means to grow old.) Director Neel Keller and set designer Jason Adams underscore Goldberg’s cultural observations by placing the two families (both impoverished, though for one there‘s no shortage of material possessions) on opposite sides of the stage, with Liz’s abode suspended between them -- aptly, for it is Liz‘s intervention that brings the two families together in the bizarre offering of a child.

The play works primarily as a function of how the two pairings mirror each other. Mary and Nancy, both trigger-happy with jealousy, are equally confined by their marriages. (Dean keeps the pregnant Mary locked up in an offstage bedroom to prevent her from scoring drugs; for Nancy, whose imprisonment is more spiritual than literal, that camping trip provides her only vision of liberation -- until, that is, she lays eyes on the baby.) For their part, Dean and John both slog through a destiny of dubious rewards and accomplishments -- Dean, living in a slum and burdened by financial and medical responsibilities; John, watching the kids he counsels swirl down life’s toilet. And both families are driven toward the consumption of ”good things“ -- drugs on the one hand, somewhat longer-lasting consumables on the other.

Yet it all adds up to the same thing. ”You‘re . . . nothin’ but a whore,“ Dean tells his brother when he catches him lacing hamburgers with cocaine. ”Whore to the system. Every time you take a snort, take a hit, you‘re just licking their balls.“

”You’re right, Dean,“ Bobby answers, punctuating his speech with spastic hip-hop hand gestures. ”I know. It just feels good.“

At the other end of the stage, John‘s ”Let’s have a look at that [camping] catalog“ speaks to much the same thirst for oblivion.

Good Thing‘s insights are certainly not the most profound or original in the world. By final curtain, this play feels like an echo of many other plays -- an experiment with form and concept rather than a work standing by the force of its own intellectual muscle.

Structurally, Goldberg’s play is calibrated something like a game of billiards, the ball-breaker (so to speak) being Liz, despite Oberle‘s tender, puckish performance. Fifteen minutes into the play, she has smacked against both John and Dean, setting in motion a ricocheting comedy of errors that possesses all the internal geometry of a Feydeau farce (though in slower motion). For Liz must sleep with Dean before she can impose herself into his home, which must occur before she can assess the magnitude of his unhappiness, which has to happen before she can persuade an understandably prickly Mary to sacrifice her child for the sake of other people’s futures.

All of which sets up the baby exchange in Act 2, at which point the dramaturgy changes its rules of engagement. In the attempt to steer the action toward resolution, Goldberg shifts genres, from a social satire resembling Mark Ravenhill‘s Shopping and Fucking to a social drama rather like Jane Anderson’s The Baby Dance. Suddenly, we‘re weighing the ethics of people’s right to bear children, or to rear them, in situations less than ideal. We‘re now just a skip away from the TV-movie, the issue of the month.

Finally, when Liz leads Dean’s clan across John and Nancy‘s threshold, baby in tow, mother Mary starts calling the shots for the first time in the play, creating a surprising new trauma for the brothers and, by extension, the introduction of yet another play, one that bears a striking resemblance to Lyle Kessler’s Orphans.

Still, Goldberg‘s skill with dialogue and irony, and a sextet of sharp, nuanced performances, keep us riveted, as Keller’s dazzling production (abetted by sound designer John Zalewski) punctuates the short scenes with pulsing start-and-stop rock transitions, rather like those in The X-Files.

The play‘s the thing, we’re told, but that‘s not always true. Sometimes it’s the playwright. Goldberg has a long road ahead of her. And that, as Liz would insist, is a good thing.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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