nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
September 14, 2008
Scientist/playwright Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth control pill while wearing his scientist hat, now wears his playwright one to examine two very different couples trying to have a child in Taboos, currently playing at the Soho Playhouse in its American premiere run. The science is laid out in clear layman's terms, and in and of itself would make for an intellectually stimulating night at the theatre. Although Djerassi makes it clear in his program note that Taboos is "a 'science-in-theatre' play," the focus of this play is the characters and the complications that arise as a result of all this science.
We're first introduced to Sally, a San Francisco television anchor whose work schedule is too horrendous for her to meet anyone, as she awaits a blind date set up for her by a professional matchmaker. She politely dismisses a friendly man named Max, who it transpires is the brother of Harriet, her blind date, sent to make sure Sally isn't excessively weird or creepy. Sally and Harriet—who, as a urologist, is just as busy as Sally and having just as hard a time dating—click nearly instantaneously, and within not very many months they're considering starting a family.
Not very long ago, two women trying to have a baby would be faced with an inconvenient biological problem, but this being 21st century San Francisco, it becomes a simple matter of Max agreeing to donate sperm. Sally, thrilled that she and the woman she loves are able to conceive, invites her semi-estranged brother Cameron from Mississippi to celebrate. The semi-estrangement has derived from Cameron's very serious and scripturally conservative Christianity, and he is initially shocked and disgusted by his sister's decision, deeming it "unnatural." However, Cameron and his even more religious wife Priscilla have not yet managed to conceive in four years of marriage, which leads to Cameron inquiring further into artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and the like. The end result of all this is that Harriet and Priscilla, in San Francisco and Mississippi respectively, give birth to babies who are genetically twins. The legal implications of this uniquely modern scenario, but more importantly the implications for the two couples involved, provide the drama for the remainder of the play.
As an educational experience on some of the possibilities of modern reproductive science, Taboos is very effective. It has a refreshingly San Franciscan attitude about the rights of same-sex couples, which is to say that those rights exist. And all the characters in the show, even—indeed, especially—the evangelical Christians, are treated fairly and sympathetically, without the white knights and moustache-twirling fiends found in polemics. The play's one flaw is Djerassi's tendency to overwrite; the second half of the play occasionally grinds to a halt with long, detailed monologues explaining scientific or legal matters. The play then becomes more an information dump than a story about people, which makes the first half so entertaining.
Still, through all that, the cast does a fine job bringing the characters to life, under Melissa Maxwell's deft and unobtrusive direction. Julie Leedes as Sally and Helen Merino as Harriet make a very engaging, attractive, and convincing couple. Harriet's brother Max occasionally verges on "too good to be true" territory, but Blake Delong plays him well. Most impressively, John G. Preston as Cameron and Jenn Schulte as Priscilla manage to transcend being straw men for the criticism of religious irrationality to become real, three-dimensional people. Preston's performance in particular is fun to watch, as he goes from being a goof with a passing physical and vocal resemblance to George W. Bush who speaks in boilerplate "Christian" dialogue like "This is unnatural" or "You're living in sin" to, by the end of the show, becoming increasingly progressive as regards alternative families, all while remaining a man of strong faith. To call his the strongest performance in the show is not to belittle the rest of the cast; he merely has the most interesting arc.
Taboos is a well-executed and informative piece. In all likelihood, its politics will spend the New York run preaching to the choir, as they would in its setting of San Francisco (a production in Mississippi would be a far bolder move). Instead, its value to an audience that doesn't need convincing on the politics is as a very human and compassionate drama by a very smart writer.