I HAVE A T-SHIRT that says, “I Hate Your Children.” My wife gave it to me for Christmas as a way, I suppose, to discourage other people — including some of our closest friends — from talking too much about their kids. As yet there’s no such shirt available for theatergoers who, from time to time, find themselves having to listen to playwrights rhapsodize about the sweet agonies of parenting. Kate Robin’s What They Have (South Coast Repertory) mercifully falls into the category of other plays, such as Wendy MacLeod’s abortion-debate drama, The Water Children, that use childbirth as a way of exploring issues farther afield than just coming to terms with adulthood. By the end of two hours, however, the story’s focus is so far afield that it appears that its former Gen-X characters are only using the birth of a child as an excuse to talk about something even more interesting to these four — themselves.
The play opens with the word “Beautiful,” spoken in the Los Angeles garage studio of a young painter, Suzanne (Nancy Bell), who lives with her musician husband, Matt (Kevin Rahm). Suzanne is in the midst of selling a large canvas to their friends, Connie (Marin Hinkle) and Jonas (Matt Letscher) — she, a successful Hollywood producer; he, a serious writer handcuffed to a successful sitcom. What follows is about a quarter-hour of some of the funniest contemporary dialogue among people who are batting about ideas without really thinking them through, positing opinions only to instantly retract them the moment they’re challenged. They interrupt and finish each other’s sentences in a desperate search for consensus. Connie, the producer who reflexively pigeonholes and titles everything she encounters, proclaims the painting to be a statement of “the post-moral universe,” while Jonas explains he’s a vegetarian because, when it comes to lamb, he refuses to deny that “There’s a murder involved in my meal.”
This is the mind-fuck chatter of people who idle their hours away at sidewalk cafés because they have either too much time on their hands or too much money in the bank. It turns out that this is the best part of Robin’s play. When Connie and Jonas leave, the struggling painter and failed musician reveal their envy about their successful friends, who, they think, never need to struggle and for whom everything lands in their laps. While, for example, Suzanne has just endured her third miscarriage, pregnant Connie is on her way to a carefree birth, waving her gestating infant’s sonograms in Suzanne’s face. Soon, though, Connie’s pregnancy goes awry, Suzanne experiences a kind of immaculate conception, and the roles are reversed. Connie is deeply depressed (and suddenly more interesting), and new mom Suzanne yammers on about the benefits of a self-actualization DVD, and her diet.
“Why should I care about what you eat?” Connie says murderously, cutting Suzanne off and finally saying something that is refreshingly selfish and not simply self-centered. Meanwhile, screenwriter Jonas is realizing how empty his world is — Connie’s increasing emotional distance and his brush with fatherhood have forced him to confront his present diminished hopes and dependency on others. These, he realizes, were pleasantly missing from his life 10 years ago. “I don’t want to want anyone anymore,” he says ruefully.
What They Have’s title suggests both an envious inventory of other people’s possessions and an accusatory cry against an unjust universe: What do they have that I don’t? Robin’s play investigates the nature of longing among 30-something Americans and, through her two male characters, arrives at some moments of painful clarity — though much of her play’s dead-serious dialogue is pure sophistry that sounds clever instead of wise. (“You don’t want to grow — you just want to be angry,” Suzanne chides Matt.) And, in a narrative populated by four busy but strangely passive characters who make few decisions over the course of the play, most of the two-person confrontations go on too long.
Chris Fields, who directed Robin’s Anon at Stage 52 last fall, gets agreeably wry performances from his actors — no easy feat in a show in which characters run from compelling to treacly in the blink of an eye. Scenic designer Christopher Barreca uses a turntable to move the play’s settings to various parts of L.A., even if, listening to Robin’s characters, you suspect in the back of their minds, they expect the world to revolve around them. Still, when it’s not looking over its shoulder for approval, What They Have at least tries to reach beyond its grasp and neatly balances itself in the play’s final twist.
WHAT THEY HAVE | By KATE ROBIN | At South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa | Through May 4 | (714) 708-5555