Wednesday, March 7, 2018

171 (2017-2018): Review: HELLO, FROM THE CHILDREN OF PLANET EARTH (seen March 5, 2018)

“Not Now, Voyager”

Don Nguyen’s Hello, From the Children of Planet Earth, a tepid comedy now having its world premiere under the auspices of The Playwrights Realm, has a plot concerning a lesbian couple hoping to have a baby by artificial insemination. So what else is new?

Dana Berger, Kaaren Briscoe. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez Productions.
From at least as far back as the 1948 movie Test Tube Babies, the concept has inspired films, TV shows, and stage plays, most of them comedies but a few, like David Rudkin’s 1973 play Ashes, rather dark. A few years ago, so many artificial insemination films were appearing it was considered a trend. 

Like Nguyen’s, some plots (the 2010 movie The Kids Are All Right and Ethan Coen’s 2013 play Women or Nothing, for example ) have focused on lesbians. The Vietnam-born, Nebraska-raised Nguyen’s twist is to see an allegorical connection between the AI theme and space exploration. The relationship, however, is too tenuous and the play itself too discombobulated for it to make an impact.
Jon Hoche, Jeffrey Omura. Photo: Daniel J. Vazquez Productions.
The play was inspired by the playwright’s own experience in being asked by two friends to be a sperm donor. Using two characters, Betsy and William, that Nguyen introduced in his play The Commencement of Willian Tan (2015), he places the action in 2012, just when the NASA space probe Voyager I, launched in 1977, was about to reach interstellar space.
Dana Berger, Jon Hoche, Jeffrey Omura, Kaaren Briscoe. Photo: Daniel J. Vazquex.
High school besties Betsy (Kaaren Briscoe) and William (Jeffrey Omura) haven’t seen each other in 17 years when, out of the blue, Betsy texts him (one wonders how she got his cell number) that she’d like to meet him. William, now a geeky NASA engineer responsible for tracking Voyager’s path, is so single-mindedly devoted to his work he’s never gotten married. His NASA buddy, Freddy (Jon Hoche), an obnoxious case of arrested development, insists that, despite her being a lesbian, Betsy wants to “bone” him, probably in a threesome with her smart-ass partner, Shoshana (Dana Berger).
Jeffrey Omura, Kaaren Briscoe. Photo: Daniel J. Vazquez Productions.
William, less ridiculous than Freddy, but equally adolescent, meets the women in a restaurant scene that’s set up so that they’re talking at cross-purposes. He thinks their questions refer to his interest in a three-way while what they’re really seeking is to learn if he’ll agree to be a sperm donor so Betsy, whose clock is ticking, can conceive.
Jeffrey Omura, Jon Hoche. Photo: Daniel J. Vazquez Productions.
This is all written, acted, and directed (by Jade King Carroll) for broad farcical effects—there was frequent laughter when I went, even at the most innocuous comments—but, eventually, things settle down. They don’t turn out as expected, though, and a touchingly tearful Betsy is forced to express the dark side of AI conception. Even the clownishly overwrought Freddy is allowed to become a bit more human.
Jon Hoche, Jeffrey Omura. Photo: Daniel J. Vazquez Productions.
Kimie Nishikawa’s sci-fi-looking set is an abstract, pick-up-sticks-like arrangement of beams and wooden units, some of it outlined with rows of glowing bulbs (Nicole Pearce did the lights). The action shifts back and forth between the women’s lives in Washington, D.C., and scenes at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where William and Freddy track Voyager I and II with a single Apple laptop (“Fund NASA!,” you might think). William even tracks the probe with a program he wrote called “Heartbeat,” which ties in, of course, with Betsy’s ultrasounds.
Olivia Oguma. Photo: Daniel J. Vazquez Productions.
Meanwhile, a young woman, Farthest Explorer (Olivia Oguma), wearing futuristic space gear designed by Loren Shaw (Ari Fulton did the other costumes), keeps appearing on catwalks over the stage between scenes, offering cryptic commentary on her mission. Symbolizing Voyager 1, she wears a Golden Record about humans whose contents include greetings to any life forms she may meet, recorded in 55 languages: the English one forms the title of the play. Oguma does it nicely but it seems an unnecessary distraction in a play already veering off course without it.
Olivia Oguma. Photo: Daniel J. Vazquez Productions.
Hello, From the Children of Planet Earth is the kind of play in which the men have their private conversations while defecating in adjoining stalls that reveal only the pants crumpled around their ankles, or in which the sperm donor, given a thick stack of porn magazines, chooses instead to masturbate to a copy of Little Women he finds in the women’s bathroom. These and other puerile choices make it difficult to take anything seriously, whether it be the problems of infertility, the dilemma of aging single people needing to make family commitments, the connection between birth and space, or the crisis of losing touch with Voyager.
Olivia Oguma. Photo: Daniel J. Vazquez Productions.
One might think that the issue of race would be discussed in a play where, as played here, the parents are of notably different skin colors. Nguyen himself has noted that, despite himself being “an artist of color,” sometimes all he wants “is to see a play where actors of color on stage never have to mention their character’s ethnicity. So I don’t know if there’s an actual movement towards one end or another. I think it’s just what the play demands. Hello, From the Children of Planet Earth is about humankind in general, and the trials and aspirations of the characters . . . are ones I think anyone can identify with.” 

Perhaps, but the question nonetheless lingers—especially since we’re never allowed to forget Shoshana’s Jewishness—and might itself add some depth to this otherwise two-dimensional play.
Kaaren Briscoe, Dana Berger. Photo: Daniel J. Vazquez Productions.
There will surely be more plays about lesbians and artificial insemination. Some such stories really deserve to be told, like the one about a woman I know, a friend of my daughter’s, who grew up around my corner. This woman and her partner, using a turkey baster, were both artificially inseminated by the same family friend, without any doctor’s assistance. The women won a groundbreaking, widely publicized case in which they were allowed to cross-adopt each other’s child so they could get health coverage. 

Their tribulations, I’m sure, would make a far more compelling drama than what the sitcom/sci-fi silliness of Hello, From the Children of Planet Earth provides.


The Duke on 42nd St., NYC
229 W. 42nd St., NYC
                                                              Through March 24        

“What Did the Folks Next to Me Think?”

The man to my left, in his 20s, nice-looking, lightly bearded, and wearing a wool cap, struggled to find a grade after saying he liked the show very much. I suggested 80 but he thought it should be a bit higher. 85? Maybe a bit too high. So I’m putting him down for an 83.