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Theatre in Review: Oh God, A Show About Abortion (Cherry Lane Theatre)

Alison Leiby. Photo: Mindy Tucker

Oh God may be the mildest show ever about a red-hot topic. Alison Leiby got caught in a historical moment when the dates for her solo show happened to coincide with the leaking of the draft Supreme Court decision that will, in all probability, revoke Roe v. Wade. That's not a burden any artist should be asked to bear. Then again, her show has just extended its run, and I suspect that many theatregoers, upset by this profound and sweeping change in established law, are making way to the Cherry Lane for a moment of solidarity -- or to figure out where to go from here.

Still, at a time when emotions are running feverishly high, Oh God doesn't seem entirely suitable to the occasion. It's conventional standup stuff, some of it thrown away skillfully, much of it eliciting less-than-boffo laughs. "So, I had an abortion three years ago," Leiby says, at the top of the show. "I'm still trying to lose the no-baby weight." It's a so-so line -- you can almost imagine Joan Rivers saying it -- and it gets a so-so laugh (or it did at the performance I attended). It's also a sign that we're in for an evening that is conspicuously low-key.

In a way, Leiby has given herself an unsolvable problem. She tells the story of her abortion to demystify it, presenting it as a routine medical procedure, a decision made without a moment's extra thought. Under such circumstances, she is left with relatively little to say about her experience. Instead, her monologue wanders, often amusingly, through a variety of topics, including the travails of being Barbie, a pretentious Brooklyn nursery named "GRDN", and a women's magazine list of healthy snacks, one of which is a glass of water. ("They're like, 'Oh, you're still hungry? For dinner just have a deep breath'.") An encounter with three neurosurgeons who cannot identify the presence of a tampon in an X-ray is equally hilarious and alarming.

And when she gets around to it, Leiby finds some humor in the details of obtaining an abortion, noting the presence of a luxury maternity wear store across the street from Planned Parenthood and becoming unsettled in the clinic's waiting room, where Toy Story 3 is on the video screen. "Was The Handmaid's Tale not queued up?" she wonders.

Overall, this evening of small comic misadventures illustrates Leiby's argument that, living in New York, she has access to an abortion that was "simple and frictionless," something that will most likely soon be unavailable to women in many states. Rather than mining their experiences for wry anecdotes, they will be forced into deeply unpalatable and life-changing situations. Still, it's an argument made mostly by inference. Oddly, the most interesting part of the show is her mother's account of her pre-Roe abortion, a Mob-sponsored process that is filled with hair-raising details. (Among other things, she was blindfolded and driven all over New Jersey, preventing her from being able to identify the site of the procedure.) You could probably build an entire show around it, one that might have more impact than Oh God. Watching Oh God, I was struck by how rarely (if ever) contemporary dramatists have apparently shied away from writing about abortion. This is in stark contrast to film where, over the last few decades, the subject has been explored (in wildly different ways and with many different conclusions) in, among others, Story of Women, Citizen Ruth, Vera Drake, Juno, and many documentaries. I suppose this may change after SCOTUS speaks; still, one wonders why the issue has been so neglected until now.

This may be the most minimally staged production of the year but, for the record, the director is Lila Neugebauer; Amina Alexander and Margaret Montagna provided the lighting and sound design, respectively.

Ultimately, Leiby concludes, "Abortion is a part of being a woman. And some women will have one, some will be afraid of having one one day, and some women will be afraid that they'll never need one and those are all real feelings and deserve to not be buried or pushed aside but felt and validated and said aloud." It's a topic that needs more discussion, to be sure, and it needs to be handled with more incisiveness than it gets here. --David Barbour

(17 May 2022)

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