In “What They Have,” Kate Robin’s South Coast Rep-commissioned study of contemporary attitudes, the scribe sets an attractive pair of married couples, thirtysomething creative types, into conflict between and among each other. Their clashes pop with wit and insight until the play turns cramped and inward at the halfway point, transforming an absorbing exploration of the psychological costs of success and failure into an extended wallow in what used to be called “navel-gazing.”
The material comforts of film exec Suzanne (Nancy Bell) and TV scribe Jonas (Matt Letscher) — mansion and pool, thriving careers and a baby on the way — naturally irk once-promising composer Matt (Kevin Rahm), now reduced to teaching guitar in schools. “Everything just falls into their fucking laps,” he complains to struggling artist wife Connie (Marin Hinkle), coping with her own stalled career (and recent miscarriage) as her husband, seeking someone or something to blame, lashes out.
“Six Feet Under” vet Robin is adept at revealing the fissures in relationships through social chitchat, the topics of which here range from the emotional authenticity of reality TV to ethics and religion. As Suzanne and Jonas glibly opine on “how lost we are as a culture” — in a way only the financially comfortable can — their failed attempts to finish each other’s sentences hint at the strains within their seeming serenity.
Meanwhile, cynical Matt mocks their pieties about human goodness and sees God as a convenience: “There’s always someone to forgive you, no matter how much of an asshole you are,” he says. Yet he’s blind to the weight of his negativity on Connie’s cockeyed optimism, sending her to seek control of her own destiny (even turning to self-help pop smash “The Secret”) as she despairs of Matt’s inability to swallow his pride and start earning.
This is potent stuff, but a profound shift occurs after intermission. With one pregnancy terminated and another brought to fruition, the themes of career and entitlement virtually vanish as Robin chooses to concentrate almost exclusively on issues of fertility and parenthood. (The husbands themselves disappear for the better part of a half-hour.) Characters’ previous commitment to action is replaced by a compulsion for self-analysis in bull sessions over the merits of adoption or whether one can maintain selfhood with a kid in the house.
Robin’s way with a pungent quip remains intact (“I doubt anyone regrets having a child; they just regret becoming a parent,” Matt observes), but her concerns become too narrowly personal and their expression impossibly verbose. Though the characters kick off “What They Have” excitingly engaged with the world, their subsequent withdrawal grinds the play’s momentum to a halt.
None of this is the fault of the four actors, easy and real throughout their characters’ emotional roller-coaster rides and self-pitying rants, nor that of helmer Chris Fields, who skillfully modulates both the overlapping dialogue and uncomfortable pauses characteristic of four friends in distinctly separate psychological places.
Production makes canny use of Christopher Barreca’s turntable, its expansive white wall separating the two couples’ abodes and revealing character through carefully changing detail. The makeshift little shrine in Connie’s dining area, in one of Lap-Chi Chu’s many subtle lighting effects, instantly evokes the spirituality she calls upon to conceive a child.
A final tableau of two couples and infant glows with promise and determination to plunge wholeheartedly back into life. Would that the second act had begun with that image and impulse instead of ending with it.