Bringing Up Baby (Chimp)

07/16/2010 6:00 AM |

Sweet, Sweet Motherhood
By Jeremy Kareken, written in collaboration with Lee M. Silver
Directed by Michael Bigelow Dixon

It’s hard enough making genetic science compelling in a classroom, but attempting the same onstage seems suicidal. The lack of precedents proves liberating for playwright Jeremy Kareken, who with Professor Lee M. Silver’s assistance concocted Sweet, Sweet Motherhood (through July 31), an experimental fusion of a campus drama and scientific morality play. Rather than the calculable sexual tension of professor-pupil affair plays like David Mamet’s Oleanna, all fluids exchanged between Henry Stein (Michael De Nola)–a tenured professor at an unnamed prestigious East Coast university–and his ballsy advisee Shelley (Caroline Cooney) pass through syringes and petrie dishes. Kareken grafts bio-ethics onto a flirty student-teacher dynamic. The experiment’s results raise compelling and essentially unanswerable questions, but are doctored for a disappointing finale.

De Nola and Cooney, charming in their slightly stiff hyper-performative modes, lack chemistry; their characters’ attraction, though technically never consummated, seems spurred by generic convention, not physical desire or intellectual attraction. De Nola, addressing the audience as if lecturing to an auditorium, leverages undeniable professorial charisma, but Henry’s extracurricular interest in his student doesn’t come across. Cooney’s Shelley chews up scenes, suggesting boisterously that for her thesis she carry a half-human, half-chimp embryo to term (a proposal Prof. Silver once received) before settling on testing a less extreme type of experimental insemination.

Kareken and director Michael Bigelow Dixon do best during the pair’s screwball arguments over the perverse animosity of academia, Shelley’s experiment’s shaky ethics and problematic intersections with animal rights and feminism–accepting to take her on after their first meeting, Stein exclaims: “You had me at ‘Fuck PETA.'” De Nola and Cooney delight in these funny, fast-paced passages, which give way to more stylized if not quite surreal drama after intermission. Here, Motherhood‘s self-seriousness wears thin through several possible endings before reaching a buoyant conclusion that seems inconceivable given the variables at play.

(photo credit: Jim Baldassare)