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Fetal Positions

THE WATER CHILDREN
By WENDY MacLEOD
At the MATRIX THEATER
7657 Melrose Ave.
Through July 13

House of Yes, Wendy MacLeod's 1990 family satire that impishly combined incest and Kennedy-assassination lore, announced the arrival of a playwright who was smart, funny and more than a little mischievous. (During its local run at the Las Palmas Theater, a character with a Jackie-O fixation entered with ketchup "blood" and macaroni "brains" smeared on her pink dress.) However irreverent and clever House of Yes may have been, though, MacLeod's comedy did not necessarily suggest a writer overly concerned with ethical dilemmas or social issues. Her latest work to appear in L.A., The Water Children, corrects this misperception by tackling one of the great divisive issues of our time, abortion. Not only that, but it does so in a way that leaves us guessing the writer's position until the last moments, and, even more impressively, forces us to examine our own beliefs - while laughing all the way home.The story (enacted by a rotating, double cast at the Matrix Theater) opens at a New York talent agency where a 30-something actress named Megan Healy (Pam Dawber/Wendy Makkena) gets bad news about a part she was up for. Megan's agent (Marilyn McIntyre/Claudette Nevins) tries to soothe her feelings by saying the actress who landed the part was simply "another type," but Megan knows different: "She's the same type, but she's 10 years younger." Then the agent mentions one possibility of work: starring in an anti-abortion TV commercial sponsored by a group called Life Force. At first Megan, who had an abortion at 16, is repelled by the idea, but, caught between a rock and next month's rent, agrees to meet with the ad's sponsors. When Megan tries to downplay her commitment to the job, her shocked roommate, Liz (Cindy Katz/Sarah Zinsser), spits, "Who's gonna be there? Gingrich? Buchanan? Satan?"The Mephistophelean allusion is not totally out of line, however, and gives The Water Children part of its oomph. For the man heading Life Force is a devilishly charming, well-dressed man from West Virginia named Randall (Gregg Henry/Don McManus), who is not what Megan - or we - imagined: some clear-eyed fanatic with a drawl who sees woman as man's handmaiden. (In other words, he's not a stage shadow of his obvious namesake, Operation Rescue's Randall Terry.)Instead, MacLeod's Randall is funny, self-deprecating and ironically disdainful of his movement's extremists. Also, as a kid in the '60s, he was inspired by his reverence for life to sneak up to Washington, D.C., to join an anti-war rally. So Megan falls for him, much to the horror of Liz, who senses Randall's cloven foot. "I'm living with Leni Riefenstahl!" she sighs after Megan first tells of her scheduled meeting with Life Force. Again, Liz does seem to be onto something here; when Randall informs Megan that her contract will prohibit her from participating in pro-choice forums, we detect a whiff of sulfur. It's a smell that lingers when Randall, who throughout the play rarely says anything religious, asks Megan to leave God out of a conversation they're having, and when Megan confesses that she imagined him with horns - "Like you were the devil tempting me," she tells him.Megan is soon confronted by another set of horns - those of a dilemma presented after she finds herself pregnant with Randall's child. What she decides to do with her fetus will determine her relationship with Randall, and, of course, her future. Her doubts about Randall, which are never fully assuaged, only darken whenever she encounters two Life Force teenagers under his charge - Crystal (Sarah Bibb/Sara Rue), who improbably claims to have been a nearly aborted child rescued from the surgeon's pale by a pro-life nurse; and Tony (J.D. Cullum/Billie Worley), a gun-toting fanatic and an unfortunate caricature of Jonathan Salvi, the tormented schizophrenic who murdered two abortion-clinic workers and who eventually committed suicide in prison.Director Lisa James' tough, tight production once again flexes the Matrix's artistic biceps. Although the action canters along at a breathless pace, there's not a nuance or tender moment lost in MacLeod's terse exchanges. Still, the evening bogs down slightly with MacLeod's insertion of touchy-feely scenes in which Megan dreams she is speaking to her aborted son, who is none too subtly named Chance (Christopher Collet/Christopher Gorham). These passages already represent a somewhat maudlin contrast to the show's prevailing tone of relentless anxiety, and might have been better served by having the never-born Chance suggested by a lighting effect and voiceover; using an actual actor only embodies the scenes' dissonant sentimentality.Necessity and temptation form the core of MacLeod's ethical tale. Her heroine opens the play with three complaints: She's jobless, celibate and an actress growing older by the audition. Then, in midconversation with her agent, she's suddenly offered the chance to temporarily climb out of all three holes by taking a job she objects to, offered by an organization she despises, and which is run by a man she believes is a devil before she has even met him. How could she not fall for it?Though Megan's lesbian friend, Liz, gets some of the sharpest lines (for which we flatter ourselves into seeing her as our alter ego), she is no angel, either. Her "progressive" position on abortion rights is revealed to be a reflexive, even visceral response to a working class she would loathe in any circumstance. She dismisses pro-life demonstrators as "mothers with bad perms and pastel sweat suits," and Randall's DNA as "missing-chromosome hillbilly genes." In fact, as Megan points out to her, Liz doesn't believe enough in the pro-choice movement to actually become an activist and only participates in marches to meet girls: "Somebody knocks your little left-wing knee with a hammer and it kicks."The Water Children tells us in its 85 minutes running time what it takes many of us, if we ever understand it all, decades to learn: that no political debate is a black-and-white contest, with evil on that side of the aisle and good on our side. Her play isn't a call to discard opinions, passions or beliefs, just as it isn't stealth propaganda for the right-to-life movement. Instead, it asks us to factor in the human element when considering social abstractions. By doing so, MacLeod layers a stratum of moral complexity onto a work that without it could have been a wispy sitcom.The benefits of presenting both sides of an issue may seem self-evident, but in reality most playwrights only pay lip service to the idea. Peter Sagal's drama, Denial, about a historical revisionist who hires a Jewish civil-liberties attorney to defend his right to free speech, begins promisingly enough, if only because the revisionist in question is an affable, somewhat tweedy college professor. But before long Sagal feels compelled to turn the professor into a resentful prat who is undone by the very forces he fears - Jewish lawyers. Likewise, Steven Dietz's 1988 play, God's Country, examined the mentality of the neo-Nazi group The Order, which was responsible for the assassination of liberal radio talk-show figure Alan Berg. But examining a mentality isn't the same as examining a soul - even the soul of evil - and Dietz's drama is a grim parade of Klan hoods, Nazi flags and children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, while loaded musical selections (i.e., "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") serenade us.God's Country redacts much of its script from trial proceedings and police records and quickly assumes the clinical, forensic approach typical of liberal-left theater about America's right wing. Built on cinder blocks of exposition and testimony, plays like this aren't so much explorations of events as transcripts of history. We sit in a theater, listen to a recitation of violence and bigotry, applaud and leave, feeling safe in our hearts that we're not alone in our conviction that neo-Nazis are bad people. There's no challenge to plays that merely condemn the blowing up of abortion clinics or the establishment of an Aryan nation; the theater that truly rattles us is one that voices an opinion contrary to ours or the playwright's, an opinion that is delivered by a rational, sympathetic person rather than someone foaming at the mouth and wearing a swastika armband. Dietz's and Sagal's plays represent a new kind of escapist theater - a theater of the left patronized by people of identical beliefs and united by a dislike for even hearing out the other side.Wendy MacLeod's The Water Children, on the other hand, is truly pro-choice, in the sense that its heroine must make a series of difficult, painful decisions - and by extension, so must we.