It’s best to know a little about Carl Djerassi before seeing his new play “An Immaculate Misconception” at Primary Stages. Fifty years ago, Djerassi invented the Pill, and so what we get onstage with regard to scientific methods of human reproduction is told by a real insider.
His play deals specifically with ICSI, the acronym for “intracytoplasmic sperm injection,” a popular treatment for male infertility that has, since its invention in 1992, produced more than 10,000 babies. In the play, Djerassi speculates on that first ICSI baby’s unusual genesis. Knowledge of Djerassi’s distinctive pedigree doesn’t necessarily make the play a good one, but it certainly makes the evening more edifying.
Djerassi could very well be the best chemistry professor (at Stanford U.) who is also a playwright. There are no clinkers in the dialogue, and his story progresses efficiently and much less preposterously than the bare-bones details might suggest: An American reproductive biologist, Dr. Melanie Laidlaw (Ann Dowd), beds an Israeli nuclear engineer, Menachem Dvir (Thomas Schall), at a conference in Vienna. He’s married, she’s not. She’s fertile, he’s not — due to a radiation accident that left his sperm count decimated.
They begin a long-distance love affair during which Melanie plans to impregnate herself with Menachem’s damaged sperm via ICSI, which she has just invented with colleague Dr. Felix Frankenthaler (David Adkins). (Yes, Menachem tellingly refers to him as Dr. Frankenstein in one moment of justified pique.)
Everyone in “Immaculate Misconception” harbors a potent secret they detonate long after the truth has become obvious. This includes Felix, who substitutes some of his healthy sperm for Menachem’s damaged goods without telling Melanie.
“Immaculate Misconception” offers up a no-exit situation of personal and professional betrayals, with each of the three players executing at least one crucial humdinger. The result is more polemic than play, without any Shavian seesaw of our moral expectations. A new whopper “sin” arrives about every 10 minutes and, as viewer fatigue ultimately takes over, you’ll call it a draw among these three sexual culprits.
Under Margaret Booker’s direction, the company does justice to the characters as written. G.W. Mercier’s set design is appropriately sleek and sterile.
The production’s most suspenseful moments come half-way through the play, when two actual ICSI fertilization procedures, with eggs being artificially inseminated, are projected on the set’s upstage wall. When the arguments begin to fly, you grow to miss those wordless participants.