nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 21, 2009
I couldn't quite get a handle on Christina Anderson's Inked Baby, which seems to juxtapose several different plays at once: a sharply observed and emotionally detailed family drama that occasionally tips over into melodrama; a parallel plot involving a medical investigation styled as dark absurdism that becomes a not-entirely-successful piece of social commentary on environmental pollution with a dash of magic realism; a metaphorical meditation on the meaning of place and family. In different sections of the play, different elements are affecting and effective, for different reasons, but the whole somehow felt less than the sum of its parts.
The central story is the family saga: after two miscarriages, and a lot of money spent on trying to have a baby, married couple Gloria and Greer have decided their only hope is a surrogate. Gloria's younger sister, Lena, who's just lost a high-paying New York job, agrees to move home (Gloria and Greer inherited their house from Gloria's parents) for the term of a pregnancy and carry her sister's baby. The situation proves less than ideal in many ways: Gloria and Greer's marriage has been under a strain, and having her husband impregnate her sister doesn't entirely help Gloria's mental state. Both conscious of their estrangement but not entirely knowing what to do about it, Greer and Gloria seek comfort in possibly destructive ways—Greer through drinking alone, Gloria through a charged friendship with a tattoo artist. Plus, Lena is bored to tears out in suburbia with nothing to do for the first time in years; she tries to reconnect with her high school friend Ky, but too much time has passed and they've grown up into very different lives.
The core relationships are the strongest here—Gloria and Lena and their differing levels of anxiety about each other; Greer trying to be strong and stoic but scared out of his mind. The strongest writing, and not coincidentally also the strongest acting, comes in this core family unit—they're the ones who have real emotional journeys, and LaChanze (Gloria), Angela Lewis (Lena), and Damon Gupton (Greer) are all compelling in their complicated paths toward a three-way construct of parenthood. The rest of the characters—Lena's friend Ky, Gloria's tattoo artist Odlum, Lena's obstetrician, and the medical assistant performing the tests on various people—are much less developed, serving mostly as waypoints for the main figures to play off of.
Then there's the medical layer: local residents are being called out of their workplaces, identified with colored sheets of paper, and being "sampled" in fairly invasive ways. No one will explain exactly what's happening, but Ky, Gloria, and Greer—neighbors—all come in for the most invasive testing, and start experiencing strange and strangely metaphorical forms of physical disintegration. The never-really-explained illness seems to be connected to length of residence in that particular neighborhood; Lena has been away long enough to be somewhat protected. There's an underlying thematic element about what it means to be tied to a place, connected geographically to people, that's intriguing but not fully explored.
And this medical plot never really comes to life—its menace seems genuine to the characters, but the storytelling is simultaneously too abstract or stylized (with its big paper tags and scary needles and purposely oblique, euphemistic terminology and non-linear symptoms) and too sociologically literal (traced to very specific environmental contamination from a years-old industrial waste site in a very matter-of-fact, politically charged way that feels out of sync with the rest of this side of the play).
The relationship between the medical plot and the family story, too, feels a little random; a final scene connects the two but otherwise they don't really inform each other the way they should. The disjunction is underscored by design elements and Kate Whoriskey's direction, which give the different sides of the play completely different styles and looks. Scene by scene, these choices work, but they don't help bring the whole together.