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Theater Review (NYC): Taboos by Carl Djerassi

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After seeing Taboos, Stanford chemistry professor/playwright Carl Djerassi’s play on the complications of modern parenthood, you can see how some are naturally inclined to accept only the nuclear family. Forget about believing in God’s will; imagine having to deal with twins borne to two mothers, a lesbian couple picking sides over who’s the mother of what child, a father who’s an uncle to his biological son, and an entire series of other family situations that would take the play’s full two hours just to unpack.

The traditional mother/father/child dynamic, while still the plurality of American families, is not as standard as it once was, and probably never will be again. But we’ve known about this phenomenon since at least the late 80s/early 90s. What we need is a compelling drama to navigate it. I have no doubt we will eventually get one, and Taboos gives it a fair shot. Yet Djerassi has fallen into the trap of having his construction of a complicated scenario take precedent over constructing a compelling drama.

Djerassi, a Austrian Jewish refugee who fled with his parents after the Anschluss, has lived an exceedingly complicated life. After inventing of the birth control pill and acquiring a fortune with his research company Syntex, Djerassi increasingly turned to playwriting later in his life. He also had to deal with his daughter’s suicide in 1978 at the age of 28, six months after she had voluntarily sterilized herself. Awarded the National Medal of Science by Richard Nixon while simultaneously on Nixon’s Enemies List, Djerassi has a unique perspective on the intersections of science, politics, social and cultural customs, and theater. There are few men who would be more qualified to write Taboos.

But there is a conflict in Djerassi’s writing between two intended audiences, academic and theatrical, and this ultimately tarnishes Taboos. One can get a premonition of this problem reading the turgid prose and run-on sentences of his program note. Djerassi's skill at drama is clear in the opening scene, where future lesbian partners Sally (Julie Leedes) and Harriet (Helen Merino) meet for the first time. Djerassi shows a natural playwright’s sensibilities for dialogue, social dynamics, and constructing a scene. It’s when the play takes on the issues of Djerassi's other life that he loses most of his playwright's instinct. The scientist in him takes over what is essentially a family drama, which results in a lot of neutral, descriptive, and unbelievable dialogue that ultimately prevents Taboos from feeling like a lively play. Instead, it ends up more like a diagram of a legally fascinating but dramatically flat scenario.

Perhaps part of the problem can be assigned to director Melissa Maxwell, who seems lost trying to manage such a play. There’s also problematic lighting design by Adrianna Desier Durantt (also the costume designer): it doesn’t succeed in its attempt to divide a San Francisco pad from a good Christian Mississippi home. In some of the play's weaker moments the cast looks confused about how to behave; it’s unclear how much of the mostly disappointing performances can be ascribed to the actors, directors, or playwright. In any event, the frustrations of Taboos ultimately wipe out what makes the story interesting.

The plot needs less a description and more a diagram, and in an excellently rendered scene towards the end, we see where the divides occur. But I’ll try to describe it anyway:

•    A lesbian couple each have a baby with their respective partner’s brother.
•    One of the brothers, a Mississippi Christian struggling to have a kid of his own, takes the other partner’s embryo from the ICSI fertilization to have a kid with his even more dogmatic wife.
•    When the Mississippi mother develops post-partum psychosis from her son’s colic, the Mississippi son is brought to San Francisco, where he forms a bond with his essential twin brother. The lesbian mother of his embryo (but not of his prenatal development) also builds an attachment to the Mississippi son while nursing him.

It’s a situation that would understandably take a long time to explain in the play, but it’s not Taboo’s job to provide a legal report. Theater won’t rewrite family law, nor will it change the mind of the Leon Kasses of the world. What theater can do is help make a complicated social, ethical, and political situation relatable to human characters. Ultimately, despite his best efforts, Djerassi can’t fulfill this promise.

Taboos by Carl Djerassi. Directed by Melissa Maxwell; set design by Lauren Helpern; lighting and costume design by Adrianna Desier Durantt; Video/production design by S. Katy Tucker; sound design by Arielle Edwards. Photos by Richard Termine.

Starring Blake Delong (Max Carruthers), Julie Leedes (Sally Parker), Helen Merino (Harriet Carruthers), John G. Preston (Cameron Parker), and  Jenn Schulte (Priscilla Parker).

Taboos is presented by Redshift Productions at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., NYC. Sept. 19-Oct. 19. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 691-1555 or www.sohoplayhouse.com.

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About Ethan Stanislawski