Lisa Loomer’s new play “Expecting Isabel,” receiving its West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, is a painful drama masquerading as a comedy. Loomer’s exploration of a young couple’s desperate efforts to become pregnant, then to adopt a child, is keenly observed and kept afloat with insightful, hilarious dialogue. Yet the subtext of the play, particularly in its dark second act, is so heartbreaking that the evening often feels like a contest between comedy and drama rather than a seamless integration of the two.
Story centers on a young couple, Miranda (Julie White) and Nick (Anthony Crivello). He’s easygoing, a cigar-smoking, sports-loving regular guy; she’s neurotic and insecure because of her alcoholic mother Lila (Brigid Cleary) and manic depressive father. When Nick first suggests having a baby, Miranda finds every excuse to oppose him, but after she tries and fails to conceive, both grow consumed with the idea of starting a family.
Numerous couples who have been down this road will identify with Miranda and Nick (at one point he cries out, “How can my sperm be a problem? I’m Italian!”). The two join support groups, submit to various experimental therapies and finally learn that pregnancy for them is an impossibility.
Nick’s competitive and frustratingly fertile brother (Marc Odets), his critical mother (Jane Galloway), who sees adoption as a sign of weakness, a marriage counselor (Fred Applegate) who suggests that the couple get a divorce — all make the situation worse.
Attempting to adopt proves even rougher. We see one birth mother after another promising the couple their newborns only to renege at the last minute. These scenes, though compelling, tend to become repetitive and would be even more affecting if cuts were made.
Despite this uneasy balancing of seriousness and humor, “Expecting Isabel” resonates with the ring of truth. Loomer knows how to draw distinctive characters, and she also benefits from an extraordinary cast.
As Miranda, White has limitless range. She runs the gamut from doubt to commitment, from disappointment to acceptance, making every transition believable. Crivello’s Nick is endearingly macho without becoming a caricature, and his nakedly hurt reactions to each bitter blow are powerful and moving.
The other actors assume multiple roles with startling success. Brigid Cleary is hilarious spouting non sequiturs as Miranda’s tipsy mother, and she’s equally convincing as the head of an adoption agency. Eileen Galindo delivers a spectacular performance as Lupe, one of the pregnant women who promises, then denies the couple her baby, and she registers strongly as a social worker. Odets, Galloway, Applegate and Mary Fortuna also are letter-perfect.
Douglas C. Wager’s fluid direction is consistently inventive, and Joe Romano’s musical interludes are in turn upbeat and somber, embellishing the dramatic mood. John Arnone’s set, Jon Gottlieb’s sound design and Howell Binkley’s lighting are first rate, and David C. Woolard’s colorful, sometimes zany, costumes have an eccentric personality of their own.