Fringe benefits

The Maternal Instinct and Rosa
By LIZA WEISSTUCH  |  April 11, 2006

RED ALERT: Rosa is swathed in absurdity, but the material is woven from the fabric of reality.The clock is ticking in The Maternal Instinct (at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through April 16). Several clocks, in fact. In Monica Bauer’s play, Sarah (a vibrant Alisha Jansky) wants to have a baby. She really, really wants to have a baby. But her wife, Lillian (an amusingly high-strung Karen Woodward Massey), is grossed out by infants. And Lillian’s time for getting tenure at a nameless Boston-area university prestigious in the sciences is also ticking away. Then Lillian’s sister, Emma (Rena Baskin), gives her a selection from a Cambridge sperm bank for her birthday. Indignant, Lillian flees to her lab while Sarah, Emma, and Lillian’s colleague, Fred (Stephen Cooper, pitch-perfect as a well-intended but painfully awkward intellectual), devise a scheme for satisfying Sarah’s urges. To reveal the ploy would be to ruin the play, but let’s just say it does not involve a turkey baster. Before long, the clock tracking the time before Sarah starts to show is ticking. And given Lillian’s turbo drive to prove herself successful in the male-dominated world of science, to wrap up her potentially groundbreaking research (which happens to have to do with brain chemistry and maternal instinct), and to maintain her rickety standing as a recovering alcoholic, news of Sarah’s pregnancy could have a volatile effect.

By this point in the 21st century, I’m accustomed to unlikely couples on stage and screen, but Sarah and Lillian’s relationship is tough to buy. We see their physical affection, and they speak tenderly of a past. But their behavior and temperaments are so incongruent that they clash worse than stripes and plaid. And though The Maternal Instinct aims to be a serious drama, the plot is so outlandish that neither Samuel Beckett nor John Waters could have come up with it. Moreover, as if to elevate the triumphs of intellectual women by making men look stupid, Bauer writes Fred as a pathetic, emasculated nerd until his 11th-hour save-the-day moment. The playwright deals with a laundry list of thorny issues, but by having Emma, a psychologist, spell out behavior and motives in clinical jargon, she ends up distancing the audience from whatever human drama might be sparking in the play.

It seems local playwrights are conspiring to remind me to send my mom a gift in time for Mother’s Day. Peter Snoad’s Rosa also pivots on a maternal impulse. In this world premiere from Alarm Clock Theatre Company (at the Boston Center for the Arts Black Box through April 22), Cynthia (De Anne Dubin) and James (Peter Brown), who live in Jamaica Plain, are about to adopt a baby they’ve named Rosa. But on the eve of their departure for Guatemala to pick her up, a bomb detonates their car. The odd explosion spawns a dizzying domino effect of events that include visits from Lewis, a snide, probing “Department of Homeland Defense” agent (Darren Kersey); his crazily concocted suspicions of terrorism; the couple’s faces appearing on the evening news; and a series of traumatic personal repercussions. Under Will Luera’s direction, we watch as unexpected turmoil erodes Cyn and James’s inner selves and, despite their mutual instinct for caring, eats away at their marriage.

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