It takes almost two hours, but “Taboos” does get interesting. Scribe Carl Djerassi’s conclusions about scientifically assisted reproduction are so pointed they could spark a volatile debate, and, since he helped invent the birth control pill, he’s certainly a credible source on modern baby-making. Unfortunately, most of his writing is so stilted auds may check out before the good stuff arrives.
The play’s one brilliant scene involves three dolls on a dining room table. They represent three children who have been creatively parented by five people — a lesbian couple, a married couple and a lawyer — in a roundelay of surrogate births, in vitro fertilization and donated eggs. In a silent argument, the parents keep moving the dolls toward whichever person they feel should raise the children.
This moment impresses on many levels. We’re told the doll swapping could result in an actual custody agreement, so every push across the table has consequences. Each move is also a bleakly witty metaphor, reminding us that parents can use their children to get what they want.
Better still, Djerassi limits the dialogue in this scene, trusting us to get its various meanings ourselves. He should nurture that impulse, because the rest of his play collapses under artless realism.
For one thing, Djerassi cannot write like people speak. For example, when Harriet (Helen Merino), a urologist, concedes she has a “gut feeling” about her new girlfriend Sally (Julie Leedes), her goofball lawyer brother, Max (Blake Delong), quips, “As a physician, you should know that there are more important organs than just the gut for a long-lasting relationship.”
Costumer Adrianna Desier Durantt puts the characters in backwards caps and baggy jeans, and the actors try to make them sound casual, but their tin-eared dialogue just never feels natural.
The plot is even less organic. Djerassi constructs ridiculous excuses for the five characters to have children together: like Harriet secretly giving her fertilized eggs to Sally’s conservative, Southern brother Cameron (John G. Preston) and his hyper-Christian wife Priscilla (Jenn Schulte), who then spews hateful, obvious rhetoric at her lesbian donor.
Director Melissa Maxwell deserves a medal for keeping the show coherent. She crafts so much physical language that personal relationships are clearer on stage than in the text. The actors, too, do good work humanizing their roles, though Schulte can’t save Priscilla from being a waspish caricature.
Again, these things are frustrating because we see snatches of Djerassi’s real talent. If he could liberate himself from the need to be realistic, he might actually find his theatrical voice.