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Theatre in Review: The Appointment (Lighting Rod Special at WP Theater)

Photo: Michael Kushner

The Appointment, a musical revue about abortion, makes its case most strongly in three scenes that happen to be the production's most understated. In the first, a quartet of women planning to have the procedure are informed by their doctor that state law demands he provide them with certain information in advance. He adds that some of what he has to say is "a little misleading and in some cases, it is actually false," but the law is the law. He then details a list of so-called risks, including breast cancer, infertility, or death, adding that none of these are real. The doubletalk is startling, the divide between public policy and scientific fact actively alarming; it's a sharp reminder of the agendas practiced by certain local governments, designed to upset and/or frighten women seeking out everyday health care.

In a number titled "Tuesday Song," the same women, sitting in a waiting room, sing, "I don't feel confused/And I don't feel lazy/I don't feel regret/And I don't feel fuckin' dumb/I don't feel naïve/And I don't feel careless/And I don't feel like the people out there/Really care how I feel." It's an act of quiet defiance; their deadpan delivery, combined with the song's insistent melody, deftly counters the extreme emotionalism with which the subject is all-too-often framed. The most powerful sequence daringly details the process of a very early abortion. Then again, maybe "daring" isn't the word. As staged it is a minor, routine procedure, executed with a minimum of fuss; watching it, one thinks, this is tearing the country apart?

And then there are the fetuses.

Yes, fetuses! They sing, they dance, they crack jokes. And they speak in high, squeaky, profoundly irritating voices, as if the Bad Idea Bears from Avenue Q have suddenly commandeered the stage. The dominant players in The Appointment, they are the show's primary vehicle for deconstructing weepy, sentimental notions about the unborn; they aim to get on our nerves and, my God, are they successful. "Just feed us," they sing, loudly. "Need us and/If we cry, or scream our demands, just/Heed us." As if we have a choice. They also engage in transparently manipulative arguments; one of them, impersonating a pastor, sings, "Those innocent and righteous creatures. Could've been Jesus' next great teachers/If their moms had given them a chance."

Feel bad yet? No? Get ready for the fetus, dressed in a garbage bag, staggering around the stage in a sloppy bit of slapstick, before confronting us with this: "I never learned how to fish/I never learned the difference between a hope and a wish/But I learned how to love." A drawn-out sketch, focusing on a fetal Thanksgiving dinner, climaxes with the rebellious turkey announcing, "Only one of you has a soul and the rest of you do not. You will cease to be and have no life after death." This cues yet another instance of noisy pandemonium.

It's an evening of obvious gags and elevated decibel levels. Exactly why everyone involved feels the need to ride the nerves of audience members who are surely in sympathy with their arguments remains unclear. But The Appointment overwhelms its best moments with crass, badly executed comic bits designed to overturn the clichés peddled by abortion's most disingenuous opponents. The collegiate sketch show-approach of a profoundly divisive issue is dispiriting; you can only get so far on attitude before some wit is also required. This, alas, is a quality missing from The Appointment; at its lowest points, it is as grating and manipulative as anything put out by the National Right to Life Committee.

The show's credits are a little hard to make out. Alice Yorke is listed as "lead artist," which, I guess, means head writer, although sketch material is also contributed by Eve Steinmetz (who also directed), Scott R. Sheppard, and Alex Bechtel, the latter of whom is responsible for music and lyrics. But a list of "co-creators" includes Katie Gould, Jaime Maseda, Lee Minora, Brett Ashley Robinson, and Brenson Thomas. It's mind-boggling that this many people could come up with something so sophomoric; then again, maybe that's the problem: Writing by committee can result in lowest-common-denominator results. The cast, which consists of seven of the above, veers all over the map; they can be acutely powerful when playing it straight and they handle audience interactions with real skill. But when they go for the comic jugular, you may wish for the giant hook that often appears -- an allusion to dilation and curettage - to whisk them offstage.

Oona Curley's set design relies on curtains to swiftly transition between scenes, surely the right strategy here. Some of Masha Tsimring's lighting looks are often quite striking. Nina Field's sound design is admirably clear. And if you're looking for fetus costumes, Rebecca Kanach is your woman. But this is, frankly, a mess. Abortion isn't an easy subject for theatrical treatment, and, if it had worked, The Appointment's calculated mix of understated documentary reality and shock-tactics comedy would have really been something. Instead, it adds little to the conversation. --David Barbour

(25 January 2023)

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