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Theater Review

Beyond the Birds and Bees

In 'Expecting Isabel,' Lisa Loomer uses laughter to soothe the ache of infertility. It's all very nice, but it doesn't delve deeply enough.

August 04, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

At once slick, peppy and a little grueling, Lisa Loomer's infertility comedy "Expecting Isabel," now at the Mark Taper Forum, will hit many, many folks where they live.

Anyone who has experienced the guinea-pig feeling induced by an unsuccessful in-vitro fertilization cycle; anyone familiar first- or secondhand with the mood-swinging wonders of the fertility drug Clomid; anyone who has endured the hurry-up-and-wait suspense of adoption procedure can relate to Manhattan marrieds Miranda (Julie White) and Nick (Anthony Crivello) and their "project."

Loomer's comic instincts take care of everyone else. The playwright, whose widely produced dark comedy "The Waiting Room" began at the Taper in 1994, dispenses the banter and the zingers freely. A former stand-up, Loomer works her theme and variations like a comic working a room.

Yet it's a disappointment. "The Waiting Room" explored what women put themselves through bodily and emotionally (bound feet, breast implants) in the name of societal expectation. By comparison, "Expecting Isabel" feels facile. As written, and as directed by Douglas C. Wager, there's something missing: A sense of the characters' edginess and increasing isolation, even in black-comic terms. We hear about it; they talk about it. But the play's relentless peppiness says something else.

That schism is a deliberate choice, to be sure, made by talented folks. "Expecting Isabel" unfolds in a bright, hyper-real, sketch-comic universe, strikingly similar to director Mark Brokaw's staging of "How I Learned to Drive," seen early last year at the Taper.

"You know what I'd really love?" asks Nick, a sculptor, just after his wife Miranda's opening monologue. "A child." This apparently is the first airing of this particular subject, for this particular couple. Off they go, eager Nick and more skeptical Miranda. For months, they try to conceive. Then, the infertility specialists enter, the support groups (laden with grotesques) materialize. In Act 2, their marriage creaking under the strain, they explore the adoption option.

Nick's family--Loomer in easy blackout-sketch mode here--offers plenty of insensitive advice en route. Miranda's elegantly sloshed alcoholic mother (Brigid Cleary, apparently on a Nancy Marchand fellowship) pops in as well. Loomer's second act bears down, hard, on Miranda and Nick, testing their resolve and their love.

*

Since the premiere two years ago at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, director Wager has recast and brought together a fresh design team. Scenic designer John Arnone provides a spacious, fanciful cutout New York-scape, dotted with neon (H&H Bagels, etc.), much of it slyly reinforcing images of procreation. Lighting designer Howell Binkley is, for him, typically bright, right on the edge of blaring.

I'm not sure, though, if a writer such as Loomer is best served by a director such as Wager. Both play and production are high-pressure. Crivello's Nick, while adequate, is so busy from the neck up, you never get a chance to relax around the character. White's Miranda takes some of that pressure off, with her loosey-goosey line readings and corkscrew timing. Too much of the supporting work from a rather undistinguished ensemble settles for Fox-sitcom brashness and funny voices. It's like watching 42 consecutive three-minute sketches on the subject of infertility.

There is a wonderful exception to the general tenor of things. His name is Fred Applegate. In a variety of stock roles--unctuous specialist, sputtering Russian cabby, dry-as-vermouth marriage counselor--Applegate exerts not an ounce of actorly or comic exertion. He doesn't necessarily get the biggest laughs of the evening; this deft, rubbery-mugged character man does, however, get all the best ones, nailing Loomer's laugh lines (most of which come pre-nailed anyway), using just the right-sized hammer.

Playwright Loomer has many gifts, and many of them are on display in "Expecting Isabel." Anyone who scores this many good-sized laughs in her protagonist's opening remarks to the audience knows what she's doing. (White's delivery doesn't hurt, either.) Line to line, she's efficient and economical.

So is much of "Expecting Isabel." When it's over, though, you don't feel as though you've gotten to know Miranda and Nick. The cleverness isn't grounded. Working with an innately charged, intensely personal subject, Loomer has crafted a savvy but rather generic comedy, likely to get around--it's full of good lines, after all--but frustrating nonetheless.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "Expecting Isabel," Mark Taper Forum, Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. No performance Aug. 12, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 27. $29-$42. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Julie White: Miranda

Anthony Crivello: Nick

Marc Odets: Dominic/Gary/Bob/Eugene/

Attorney

Jane Galloway: Yolanda/Nurse/Paula

Brigid Cleary: Lila/Therapist/

Group Leader/Judy

Fred Applegate: Sal/Richard/

John/Cabby/Val/Marriage Counselor

Eileen Galindo: Pat/Adele/

Social Worker/Lupe

Mary Fortuna: Tina/

Taylor/Heather/Lisa/Isabel

Written by Lisa Loomer. Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Scenic design by John Arnone. Costumes by David C. Woolard. Lighting by Howell Binkley. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Original music by Joe Romano. Production stage manager Mary K Klinger.

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