Moments into Courtney Baron’s new play, “Morbidity and Mortality,” lead character Carolyn climaxes some Rod McKuen-esque romantic poesy with I’m-a-bad-widdle-gurl giggling and the pronouncement, “I masturbate to the thought of having sex with the doctor who killed my baby.” Deafening silence ensues — though perhaps not the silence intended. While the playwright probably expects the audience to gasp at her daring, our collective gulp might instead pay awed testament to a “shock” hook so clumsy, artificial and self-congratulatory it causes the play’s own near-death-in-infancy.
There are intermittent signs of life during the next 74 minutes. Still, what qualities emerge do so despite a central concept that doesn’t improve past first impression and a central character who remains as stubbornly faux-cute and attention-hogging as when she announced it.
Carolyn (Sasha Eden) — who does not appear to have ever had a vocation — and copywriter husband Michael Goldenhersch (Jonathan Leveck) are a young Manhattan married couple, five years running.
Their Judaism, cultural rather than religious, is discussed at moderate length. Their Upper West Side socioeconomic circumstances, however, are not. Baron assumes everyone can relate to “funny” dialogue referencing the joy of Barney’s sales or smugly admitting a preference to foie gras over chopped liver. (Perhaps most nonprofit theater audience members can, too, but the assumption still irks.)
Their idyllic couplehood only grows more so when Carolyn discovers she’s pregnant. But the infant delivered at Mount Sinai is a four-pound preemie who doesn’t survive a catheterization necessitated by poor birth health.
Is that death the fault of Dr. Anil Patel (Hari Dhillon), a still-in-training cardiologist who performed this procedure under first-time supervision? The play is vague about that. It wants the thrill of Carolyn’s romantically pursuing her own “baby-killer,” uncurtailed by blunt malpractice lawsuit. So blame for the baby’s demise is left in the woozy middle distance where this play largely resides.
Carolyn does get hot for the doc almost immediately. She stalks him at his favorite coffee shop, then orchestrates platonic “dinner dates” until, finally, they lead to his bed.
Is her pursuit merely perverse? A self-flagellating way to restore feeling after the numbing horror of losing a child? Is it revenge, against the medico and the husband she somehow holds equally responsible? Is it simply real love under awkward and untimely circumstances?
Carolyn hasn’t a clue. From all indications, Baron hasn’t either. Incredibly, she lets her presumed fictive alter-ego (it’s hard to think otherwise) end the play in the front row, questioning as “part of” the audience whether this play has any point.
Really, cute self-consciousness has a limit.
“Morbidity and Mortality” does have its plusses. Playwright and director intercut among past, present and direct-audience address with agility. Baron has written two decent male roles that are very well acted: Dhillon is terrific as a modest misanthrope cured by ultra-awkward amour, while Leveck is disarming as a man-boy pained by his wife’s increasing distance after mutual suffering.
But they’re both pining for a lunar female too indulgently conceived, too soap-operatically given enough rope in dialogue terms and too preeningly self-satisfied in performance to be a worthy dramatic crux.
Thesp Eden seems to be channeling a precise, princessy authorial ideal, so she can hardly be faulted for its repugnance — or lack of self-evaluation. Why does Carolyn pursue Dr. Petal? Does her Jewishness matter? How about his being Indian-American (he’s atheist, but has to answer her Hinduism questions nonetheless)?
No, such cultural matters are raised only to further focus attention on a brat heroine who rilly, rilly needed a dead baby to get your attention, but oh well.