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A CurtainUp Review
Sweet, Sweet Motherhood
The play, directed uncomfortably by Michael Bigelow Dixon, stars Michael De Nola as Professor Henry Stein, an eminent biotechnology professor at a top university whose cutting-edge research and irreverent manner has elevated him to the top of his profession. One of his lectures (presented with the clever use of projection boards and cameras, part of Ray Neufeld's excellent set) piques the interest of what the press release describes as the "bitingly intelligent" undergraduate student Shelley McAnn (played by Caroline Cooney), who comes to Stein's office with a proposal: take me on as an advisee, and I'll put together an experiment which will knock your socks off. The experiment in question, which Stein only learns of after accepting Shelley, involves fertilizing a human embryo with chimpanzee sperm to create a hybrid creature— with Shelley, who is blithely uninterested in any kind of moral considerations, as the mother. Stein refuses, but Shelley persists anyway. . .and ,since Stein has (shockingly!) started to have feelings for her, the situation quickly grows more tangled than the DNA strands on which Stein's research depends.
If any of this sounds icky, there's no need to worry. The action is as tame as the language is extreme, and the actors seem queasy enough about the subject matter to avoid demonstrating either any real chemistry with each other or genuine passion that would draw the audience into the scientific or ethical fabric of the play. De Nola in particular is so awkward as Stein, flubbing lines so often that I began to wonder if it was intended to be a character interpretation. The few moments when he's allowed to express real vulnerability fall utterly flat. But Cooney, whose irritating, foul-mouthed Shelley (who conceals her supposed "biting intelligence" very well) leaves us cold to the consequences of the choices she decides to make, isn't much better. Why Stein would throw away his marriage and career for this immature and unimpressive student—or why we're supposed to feel sorry for him as he seriously considers doing so—is completely mystifying. Neither actor is able to make their respective characters even remotely sympathetic.
Ultimately, this emotional disconnect is probably a good thing, because it keeps the audience from really grasping the message which keeps coming through. What makes this play offensive isn't the series of questions it asks about bioethics, which are simplistically described and hardly new, but the cynical stereotypes it plays into about the relationships between students and professors and the more dangerous ones it celebrates about the supposed lines of attraction between older men and younger women. There's a reason, after all, that it's during Stein's musings played up as dream sequences that Shelley says "There is something so sexy about a good professor. It's like your idea have sex with mine and I give birth to all these new thoughts. . .I'm not saying just do me now. But couldn't we?" It took me a moment to notice (when I was done rolling my eyes) that this scene actually took place outside of Stein's fantasy. . .but unfortunately not outside of Kareken's and Silver's. I would hope we could be beyond this sort of nonsense by now.
As described in the press release, the play's concept is intriguing and potentially explosive. As experienced in the production, though, boring and offensive are more apt adjectives. The best drama asks difficult, probing, even painful questions in the service of exploring what it means to be human. The worst drama recycles tired, overused dilemmas by way of easy shortcuts. It's unfortunate that Sweet, Sweet Motherhood spends most of its time in the latter category.