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A CurtainUp DC Review
Expecting Isabel
Les Gutman

The action takes place atop an enormous white, egg-like oval. The backdrop, containing a huge blue field, is dotted with translucent, sperm-like, squigglies. A large gilded baby even hangs overhead. There's no doubt about the story Lisa Loomer is telling in Arena Stage's world premiere production of Expecting Isabel. As she notes in an interview, it's "a fascinating, if painful, irony that a generation of women who fought so hard for the rights of birth control and abortion is fighting equally hard to have children 20 years later."

Miranda (Ellen Karas) and Nick (John Ottavino) are not having an easy go of it. For starters, they seem to typify the perfect couple only if you believe opposites attract. Miranda is pessimistic, unhappy and cynical -- a non-believer who had an unpleasant childhood. Nick thinks every cloud has a silver lining, prays to St. Jude (the patron saint of lost causes) and rejoices in his childhood memories. These disparities bring them to the enterprise of baby-making from different perspectives but parallel enthusiasm. Once Mother Nature proves uncoöperative, the rollercoaster ride toward parenthood triggers a remarkable exploration of familial love.  

The journey begins with traditional lovemaking but soon enters the byzantine maze of alternate solutions: fertility drugs, in-vitro fertilization, support groups, self-help books and medical specialists. When they reach a dead end, the sign there reads "adoption," which begets a new legion of lawyers, support groups and "facilitators."
Loomer is adept at comedy writing, and that facility is used to great effect in developing believable characters. It also makes the play entertaining. She also has a knack for maintaining that comedic cadence while exploring (briefly, perhaps a tad too tentatively) other, more serious emotions.  This feat is most impressive when a chillingly poignant moment suspends our laughter and captures our attention.  Douglas Wager's direction is in near-perfect harmony with her style, which in turn is well-suited to illuminating his own strengths as a director.

Where the play wanders off-course is in permitting its familiar humor to become predictable humor. Lengthy scenes involving Nick's stereotypical Bronx Italian Catholic family and Miranda's stereotypical Episcopalian mother hit every identifiable funnybone, but with no discernible purpose. Added to the near-obligatory New Jersey jokes and Tina Brown/Helen Gurley Brown references, the play at times seems to have a punchline-driven plot -- a series of comedy routines illustrated with dramatic action.

The play doesn't need these diversions. It has plenty to say without them and, besides, it's too long at over two and one-half hours. It would benefit by heeding the (here) particularly ill-worded maxim of playwriting: you've got to learn to kill your favorite children. It's a discipline Loomer doesn't seemed to have mastered yet. Even her excellently-drawn portrait of Miranda suffers from the overkill when, it seems, she can't resist throwing in one more laugh. Wager serves Loomer's work well, but perhaps they are too sympatico for the type of editorial effort that was needed here.

Karas and Ottavino are exceptional as the would-be parents. Both have strong comedic skills and are able to sustain the humor without compromising the nuances of their characters for laughs. Miranda is neurotic but functioning; Nick is an optimist, but neither blind nor carefree.

The remaining cast, an ensemble of six actors who, between them, assume some twenty-seven roles, is also quite good. Their performances could be described as uneven, not in the usual sense that some actors are better than others, but rather in that some of each actor's portrayals are better than others. The low points involve the hackneyed family members Loomer has drawn --it's hard not to recall better evocations of parents than these working class Italians and Miranda's martini-sipping mother (Brigid Cleary). The high points include Nick Olcott, especially as their fertility expert, and Eileen Galindo, who is most compelling as Lupe, a mother planning to give a child up for adoption, who defines and demonstrates precisely what is at stake in this play.

Fast on the heels of Expecting Isabel's opening comes word from The Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays that the play has been chosen as one of three 1998 Award Winners. (Look for Susan Davidson's CurtainUp report on the Awards Luncheon, when posted.) It affords the hope that Loomer will use the encouragement to transform the play from a timely and entertaining one into a truly great one.
by Lisa Loomer 
Directed by Douglas C. Wager 
starring Ellen Karas and John Ottavino with Marc Odets, Rondi Reed, Brigid Cleary, Nick Olcott, Eileen Galindo and Mary Fortuna 
Scenic Design: Thomas Lynch 
Costume Design: David C. Woolard 
Lighting Design: Allan Lee Hughes 
Sound Design: Timothy M. Thompson 
Arena Stage Kreeger Theater, 1101 Sixth Street SW Telephone (202) 488 - 3300 
opened October 7 closes November 22, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman October 8, 1998

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