Sweet, Sweet Motherhood
nytheatre.com review by James Harrison Monaco
July 9, 2010
The promotion for Sweet, Sweet Motherhood has been sure to highlight the unique origin of its script, and with good reason. Playwright Jeremy Kareken collaborated with renowned and widely published professor of molecular biology Lee M. Silver of Princeton University to develop a play about genetics and cross-breeding. The script is a hybrid child of Playwright and Scientist, it's about a hybrid child of Human and Ape, and the production is a hybrid between a Straight Play and an Exploration on Biological Themes. It's also a romantic comedy.
Shelley McCann is a molecular biology undergrad eager to make a sensation. She approaches Professor Henry Stein with a proposal for a thesis, wherein she will fertilize one of her eggs with a chimpanzee sperm, carry the hybrid child full-term in her own body, and observe the results. Stein rejects the physically and ethically treacherous proposal but agrees to advise her. Shelley persists, Stein grows intrigued by Shelley and all the questions her experiment poses, and the relationship and situation severely complicate. Between the scenes, Stein lectures the audience (recast as his biology classroom) on reproductive genetics, its current developments and its ethical issues.
The play works to pose an ethical question about genetics and humanity, and to carry its hypothetical scenario out on stage. Many of Stein's lectures are of real interest and deepen the play's issues—in one he points out that chimpanzees and humans are closer genetically than many species pairs that scientists have already crossed, such as the sheep and the goat or even the horse and the donkey (which can breed). We have the technology for the human/chimp cross, though we haven't tried it. The lectures entice the mind for a fascinating experiment.
The problem is that we don't get to watch this experiment play out on stage as suggested. All the action takes place in a university office (not a lab), and most of the onstage conflicts are about the academic world, not the science world. The only hybrid we see live in its struggle is that between a play about genetics and a play about a teacher/student attraction. The former has promise as a new idea for the stage, but the latter is a familiar narrative. Eventually the biological ideas fade and the primary story is a human romance.
The tug between scientific exploration and relationship drama is intriguing at core, but it becomes the production's biggest hurdle. Some dramatic scenes get bogged down when the dialogue tries not only to tell story but to teach the audience basic biology. For instance, Professor Stein, in the middle of a critical argument, explains to Shelley that humans have 23 chromosomes and how they work. I found it hard to believe that a senior molecular biology student at a "prestigious East Coast university" would need that explained, and it slowed down the action. Conversely, character histories made to inject the scientific ideas with drama feel forced into the dialogue. In one of the first scenes, Stein tells a student he's just met that his first child died from the genetic disease Tay-Sachs, and that he and his wife have hand-chosen embryos to ensure their next child will be healthy. This happens again when Stein confesses his marriage is crumbling. I believe he could be brought to that point, but I didn't see exactly how the action of the characters got him there.
There are a number of expressionistic moments created from Zoe Woodworth's gorgeous video design, yet as breathtaking as they are on their own, I wasn't sure how these moments affected the story or deepened the themes. They seemed to exist, like the dead child or the failed marriage, solely to give a scientific play heart, but I think it all could have gone further to complicate the story.
Caroline Cooney takes the stage with energy and bold choices. She portrays Shelley as brazen, blunt, and goofy. She's so forward with her sexuality she's almost clumsy with it (rather than alluring), which feels true for Shelley's type, an ambitious college girl. Michael De Nola's Professor Stein is a proud teacher who relishes his ability to be both fun and intelligent—also a clear type. As types these characters make sense with each other, but as the play develops they don't much change. They go through different situations and emotions, but we don't get to see them change at heart in front of us in a live, nuanced way.
The collaboration for the piece had me eager to see what new experience the combination would offer. But instead of something wholly new or dangerous or strange, as a hybrid promises to be, Sweet, Sweet Motherhood feels like a half-developed drama and the beginnings of an ethical idea. It feels tepid on both ends, not radical, and the organic unity of the piece doesn't come to full form.