Nothing says “agenda” like a musical sponsored by a drug company. Granted, “Infertility,” Chris Neuner’s song cycle about the frustrations of would-be parents, began as a hit in last year’s New York Fringe Festival, not as the carrier of Serono Inc.’s torch. But the synergy between the fertility drugmaker and this pleasant, awkward tuner is almost too perfect; it plays like a health-class lesson for grown-ups faced with reproductive hurdles.
Neuner sketches a vague story for his revue — a straight couple, a lesbian couple, and a single woman all struggle to conceive — but it teems with reproductive data. A program note explains that when Neuner and his wife had conception woes, they “never heard anyone talk about the problem.” To correct that, we now get scenes in which a generic doctor, played like a vaudeville showman by Larry Picard, delivers zingers like “the gonadatropin Gonal-F is delivered daily by subcutaneous injection using a pen.”
That, by the way, partly describes how in vitro fertilization works, and Neuner can be commended for fitting a boatload of information into 80 minutes. But really, what actor can make those lines work? Picard does his best, but with no character to speak of, he remains a factoid-spouting mouthpiece.
The rest of the cast fare better as the wannabe parents. Though they also get saddled with jargon, Neuner provides some heartfelt numbers to put a face on all the science. Particularly complex is “We Found Love Our Own Way,” which lets gay partners Zusu (Jenni Frost) and Heather (Seri Johnson) recall the obstacles they’ve faced not only as mothers, but also as a couple.
Frost’s perf especially resonates because she pulls such expressive range from Zusu’s journey. It’s a relief when she connects Neuner’s emotional dots, because much of his nonfactual material is aimed at auds that already understand infertility. Jokes and heartbreaks get generalized, denying the uninitiated a detailed picture of crises like asking a family member for donor sperm. That’s an intriguing concept, but without characters whose worries have specific context, the ideas remain academic.
This creates a bizarre fissure in the show: Those who understand infertility won’t need the teaching tunes, while those who are just learning may feel removed from the sentimental ballads.
At the very least, the ensemble has beautiful voices, and Neuner’s vocal arrangements sound fantastic, regardless of the songs’ subject.
At musical crescendos, director Dan Foster wisely keeps the stage business minimal, but he also nails comic bits like “The Donor Dating Game,” in which Heather selects sperm from one of three lucky finalists. Foster orchestrates perfect timing between the donors’ lists of flaws and Heather’s spastic reactions.
Of course, his staging also underscores some of the show’s most jarring assertions. During any moment in which characters yearn for babies — and there are plenty — they face the crowd, bathed in soft light and singing with earnestly wide eyes. Their desire for children comes across as pure, almost holy.
Ultimately, this delivers a moral that’s less about reproductive options and more about the purportedly unassailable truth that no one’s complete without a child (the song “Big Dogs Run” essentially says just that).
That position raises plenty of questions about reproduction, childbearing and love, but “Infertility” avoids them. If it explored its own assumptions, the show might feel like a challenging piece of theater instead of a catchy bit of propaganda.