If “A Very Common Procedure” is any indication of the creative qualities that have made scribe Courtney Baron a fixture on the festival circuit, then the workshop process should have its head examined. Or — to use the play’s own overworked central metaphor — its malfunctioning heart. Hearts are closed, clenched, frozen or otherwise damaged in this mannered writing exercise about a woman who exorcises her grief at the loss of a child by seducing the surgeon who botched a “common procedure” on the prematurely born infant. Despite beautifully textured perfs in an ultra-slick production helmed by Michael Greif for MCC, this creepy weeper remains so fixated on its own morbidity that it fails to resolve the issues it raises.
In an effort to impose a post-modern sensibility on the sad but straightforward events of her play, Baron fiddles with chronology, repeats key speeches and runs scenes out of sequence. But while such authorial devices reflect the disoriented thinking of a woman traumatized by the loss of her child, the clarity of the direction removes all doubt about what’s going on.
Carolyn Goldenhersch (played with a fine intensity of feeling by Lynn Collins) gave birth prematurely to a baby girl with a heart defect commonly repaired through corrective surgery. But Anil Patel, the young and (in Amir Arison’s chilly perf) rather detached physician who delivered the baby, evidently screwed up the procedure.
Both Carolyn and copywriter husband Michael (whose complex and often contradictory feelings are sensitively projected by Stephen Kunken) are devastated by the tragedy. But instead of screaming down the place and whistling for a malpractice lawyer, this emotionally detached Manhattan couple takes a more self-destructive stance. Closing off from one another, they express their grief in those interminable monologues so beloved of pretentious playwrights.
Whenever he isn’t sunk deep in silent misery, Michael can be sympathetic. “I don’t want the mysteries to be solved,” he says, explaining why he won’t finish the final chapter of a John Grisham novel. “I want things without ends. I want to live in the middle of the stories.”
Despite her bizarre behavior — she stalks and eventually seduces the doctor who presumably killed her baby — Carolyn also has some telling moments of honestly felt emotion. “Don’t give her a name,” she begs Michael when he tries to speak of their dead baby girl. “Don’t make her a person we’ve lost. Just let her be.”
Set against the almost inhumanly stark design of the production — all sleek horizontal lines and buffered tones of gray and black — such character-revealing moments feel quite precious.
But revelation is not the point of this play, which consistently resists every opportunity to make sense of itself. The drama premiered under the title “Morbidity and Mortality” last March at the Magic Theater in San Francisco.