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Theatre in Review: Bump (Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Lucy DeVito, Jenny O'Hara. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

This has been the Week of Irrelevant Subplots: Earlier, I saw Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which interrupts its main action, about a romantic quadrangle and machismo run amok, with a series of scenes set in the afterlife, featuring a set of characters who, at best, are tangentially related to the plot and who are allowed plenty of time to rattle on. Now comes Bump, which is mostly set in the present, but, every so often, flashes back to a cabin, somewhere in America, in 1790, where an innocent young woman named Mary, about to go into labor for the first time, is attended by a midwife whose bedside manner could use a little work; for one thing, she keeps adding charges -- for such services as chopping wood and making a meal -- to her bill. (Mary's husband is off at the local tavern, making himself scarce while the baby is being born.)

Is it really that difficult to fill a play with meaningful action these days? Bump only runs ninety minutes, but it gets winded long before reaching the finish line. Chiara Atik's play is loosely based on the development of the Odon Device, which is designed to eliminate the use of forceps during difficult births. It's really a clever little gizmo: It involves inserting a lubricated plastic sleeve into the mother's vagina; it is then inflated, allowing one to pull out the baby by its head without causing damage to the skull. It was developed by an Argentine auto mechanic, of all people, and has been endorsed by the World Health Organization. It was taken up by Becton Dickinson, and, as of 2017, was scheduled to undergo clinical trials.

I imagine that the development of the Odon Device was a rather uneventful affair, because so little happens in Bump, I hesitate to even call it a play. Claudia, the heroine, is pregnant for the first time and she announces to her parents, Luis and Maria, her intention to give birth at home in a tub that holds 170 gallons of water, "so that the baby can be born fully submerged." She adds, "It's actually a much less stressful experience for the baby." She also notes that there is room for the baby's father as well as such amenities as a cup holder. "Does it come with a cabana boy?" wonders Luis.

Anyway, watching YouTube while lying in bed -- a noisy habit that irritates Maria -- Luis happens on a video offering instructions in the removal of a cork from the interior of a bottle, and, suddenly inspired, starts to invent the play's version of the Odon Device. In true sitcom style, Claudia and Maria look on, patronizingly. "You made it in the garage?" asks Claudia, skeptically. Offering a demonstration, Luis picks up a glass jar into which he has inserted a baby doll. "This is the uterus," he says to his quietly appalled wife and daughter. But darn if it doesn't work.

When not devoting itself to these do-it-yourself fun and games, Bump concentrates on a pregnancy message board, where expecting mothers trade comments about Vernor's ginger ale (great for morning sickness, and why doesn't every Burger King carry it?), the absence of pockets in maternity pants, and the possible health risks of drinking coffee. The latter conversation is shut down by a mother who announces, "I have a toddler, I need coffee, there is literally no other option." And, every so often, we are whisked off to that colonial cabin in the dead of winter, where, among other things, the midwife reminisces about her cousin Ephraim -- he of the extravagant pustules -- while exploring Mary's uterus with her hand.

I'll say this for the colonial subplot: At least it distracts from the obvious fact that Bump is little more than a collection of stray observations, like an anthology of Erma Bombeck columns or, I imagine, any of the so-called "momoirs," such as The Girlfriends Guide to Pregnancy, that recently have been rolling off the presses with such regularity. It has been some time since I have encountered a play founded on such a rickety dramatic foundation: Luis' work on the device proceeds without incident, the gals in the chat room deliver their one-liners ("I think I'm actually starting to look pregnant, and not just like I went to Chipotle"), and Mary's labor takes place with plenty of pain and little sympathy from the midwife. (Mary's scenes have the unintended effect of making Claudia and the others seem like so many whiners, trailing their lengthy lists of First World problems.) Even a sequence in which Claudia starts having contractions well before her due date amounts to nothing.

At least Claudia Weill, who directed, assembled an affable cast, including Ana Nogueira, whose considerable charm goes a long way toward keeping Claudia, with her dogmatic ideas about birth, from seeming like a total kook, and Adriana Sananes and Gilbert Cruz as Maria and Luis. Lucy DeVito and Jenny O'Hara do their best with the Mary-midwife scenes, which seem to exist in their own orbit. (I suppose we're lucky we didn't get a cavalcade of birth scenes down through the ages.)

The production is on the skimpy side, with Kristen Robinson's set seemingly underdressed so that it can stand in for many locations in two different centuries. In any case, Suzanne Chesney's costumes, Gina Scherr's lighting, and M.L. Dogg's sound all get the job done. As for the Odon Device, as of now its future is uncertain -- a term that can be applied without hesitation to the script of Bump. --David Barbour

(17 May 2018)

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