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Theatre in Review: Hello, From the Children of Planet Earth (The Playwrights Realm/The Duke on 42nd St)

Jeffery Omura, Kaaron Briscoe. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez Productions.

Don Nguyen's new comedy wants to be up-to-the-minute -- even futuristic, given in its space-age underpinnings and appointments -- but its key elements, and most of its dialogue, have been shipped in from The Island of Busted Sitcoms. An apparently sincere attempt at dealing with a modern phenomenon, it consistently relies on lame gags and tired tropes to make its points. It centers on a kind of triangle -- a lesbian couple who want to have a child, and the man they select as their sperm donor. Betsy, who works for Amnesty International, and Shoshana, a chef in a farm-to-table restaurant, have already suffered through multiple miscarriages; in their mid-thirties, they are beginning to fear that their biological clocks are running out. Looking for a new potential father, Betsy contacts William, her old friend from high school -- whom she hasn't seen in seventeen years.

We get a sense of the playwright's method when we are introduced to William at NASA, where he works as an aerospace engineer. He and his best friend, Freddy, are in adjoining toilet stalls, sharing their daily "poop time." Hearing that William has a dinner date with his old friend and her partner, Freddy, with his overheated imagination, conjures a series of steamy threesome scenarios. At dinner, Shoshana, who has horned in on what was supposed to be a tête-à-tête between Betsy and William -- who is innocent of their intentions -- grills him about his health and political convictions. Satisfied, she announces, "We're ready to do it if you are," adding, "we constantly dream about it." Poor, baffled William begins to fear that maybe he is being lured into what Noël Coward once called "a triangular carnal frolic."

It's a tired sex-farce idea, and it hits the trifecta, being awkwardly written, directed, and performed. There's plenty more where that came from: William, having signed on to the plan, is dispatched to the bathroom with a sterile plastic cup and a stack of porn magazines; instead, he picks up a copy of Little Women, masturbating, tearfully, to the scene in which Beth dies. Freddy, urging William to enter into an airtight legal agreement with the ladies, reminds him that this arrangement is a transaction "of the spermumental kind." When William insists that he likes to get out of his comfort zone, Betsy says, "Like our senior year business class! When you sold mechanical pencils dressed up as a pencil. A pencil selling pencils!" In the middle of a crisis, William and Freddy pause to spar over the correct pronunciation of "Cheetos."

The central action involves William, who has no personal life to speak of, experiencing the first emotional involvement of his adult life as he embraces the prospect of (sort-of) fatherhood. As written, he's a human blank with no friends but Freddy and no interests outside of his job, which involves keeping track of the Voyager 1 space probe. (Explaining his tabula rasa nature, he says, "Growing up, both my parents worked at night. There was no gathering around a dinner table, no one asking how my day went.") The climax comes when Nguyen intercuts Betsy's ultrasound session with William and Freddy's frantic search for the disappeared Voyager 1. (The play is set in August 2012, when the spacecraft went beyond the perimeter of the solar system.) In a parallel development, we see both couples listening intently for sounds of life. It's the one graceful idea in an evening that otherwise cries out for a laugh track.

Under the direction of Jade King Carroll, the actors skate across the surface of the dialogue, playing for laughs that aren't there and declining to probe the characters' deeper feelings. Dana Berger and Kaaron Briscoe are reasonably appealing as Shoshana and Betsy; one easily accepts them as longtime partners, and Briscoe does pretty well by a speech about the psychological cost of her miscarriages. Given the fact that William is a human blank, Jeffrey Omura has little room to maneuver; he manages to bring a bit of feeling to the later scenes. Jon Hoche's Freddy is that standard sitcom feature, the wacky best friend who turns wise just before the final curtain; the actor doesn't shy away from his character's most grating qualities. Olivia Oguma is engaging as the Farthest Explorer, an extraneous symbol-as-character who appears between scenes, cruising the universe, looking for aliens, equipped with a message of greeting in fifty-five languages.

Kimie Nishikawa's abstract set design features a structure consisting of the outlines of multiple triangles lined in color-changing LED tape, backed by a wall of white lights. It's striking, and Nicole Pearce's lighting reshapes the space with a variety of looks, alternating white washes with saturated color effects. Ari Fulton's costumes are fine enough for the four earth characters; the Farthest Explorer's space suit, designed by Loren Shaw, is an amusing creation, seemingly channeled from a Flash Gordon serial of the 1930s. Elisheba Ittoop's sound design includes such effects as The Farthest Explorer's language tapes, selections of country music and smooth jazz, William's "Rocket Man" ringtone, and those heartbeats.

Coming from The Playwrights Realm, which has given us many challenging works, this one is a bit of a head-scratcher. This, as far as I can tell, is Nguyen's first full production in New York. Katherine Kovner, the artistic director, insists in her program notes that, during his fellowship with the company, he has been bombarding her with exciting new works. I'll take her word for it, but with this one he isn't putting his best foot forward. He is so busy trying to make his characters quirky and cute that he forgets to make them matter. -- David Barbour

(8 March 2018)

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