When Carolyn and her husband, Michael, two middle-class Manhattanites in their early 30s, lose their first child owing to medical complications soon after their daughter's birth, Carolyn moves in mysterious ways: She has an affair with, as she terms it within the first 30 seconds of the production, "the doctor who killed my baby." It's a pretty extreme form of escapism. While her copywriter husband mopes around the house, dusting off a little-used set of Sabbath candles in a pathetic though understandable attempt to find comfort in his Jewish heritage, Carolyn seduces Dr. Anil Patel, a young and inexperienced Southeast Asian doctor, who's attractive to the troubled woman both for what she perceives to be his exotic looks and background and for his inadvertent role in the death of her newborn.
Part inquiry into the ways in which people handle grief, part exploration of the strange workings of the human psyche, Magic Theatre's world-premiere production of Morbidity & Mortality succeeds primarily by forging a strong sense of community. Our ability to bond with the people onstage sensational events notwithstanding owes much to the matter-of-fact, transparent performances from all three actors: Sasha Eden (Carolyn), Hari Dhillon (Anil), and Jonathan Leveck (Michael). Director Loretta Greco's sensitive blocking also helps. For instance, the way in which Leveck stands at the margins of the set with his back turned while his wife and the doctor play seduction games center stage succinctly suggests Michael's alienation from Carolyn.
That bond between stage and stalls becomes hermetically sealed, however, by the text itself. For Morbidity & Mortality can perhaps best be described as a bizarre form of group therapy of the sort one might find in a Chuck Palahniuk novel. The playwright maintains a distinct critical distance from her characters, deliberately refraining from judging any of their actions. Plus, the story evolves in a confessional way. Aside from the tense, climactic final scene, in which the members of the trio confront one another for the first time, there are no extended interactions among all three; the rest of the tale is told through anecdotes and revelatory statements from each of the characters about themselves and each other, delivered, in many cases, directly to the audience. Baron creates a sense of cozy sharing, even going so far as to include moments of viewer participation. At one point during the show Anil asks us to ball our hands up into fists to demonstrate the size of the human heart. And at the end of the play, Carolyn takes a seat in the stalls before asking us directly: "What do we learn from this?"
I, for one, learned two things one that may make you avoid the play, and another that I hope will inspire you to see it. On the negative side, I learned (or relearned) that theater structured as therapy usually makes for disappointing drama. Having characters speak directly to the audience (or break the fourth wall, as thespians call it) may help create a sense of community, but it doesn't pack anything like the dramatic punch of real confrontation between people onstage. Similarly, the characters have a habit of explaining themselves or each other e.g., "Carolyn is chronically early"; "Michael cleared the apartment of baby things before I came home from the hospital. Did it because he wanted to help" rather than revealing their emotions and intentions through speech and action. In the case of Michael, this technique proves particularly limiting. Michael is a passive being: He does little except react to events around him. Talking to the audience rather than engaging with Carolyn or Anil only exacerbates his inertness. Faced, unenviably, with turning this two-dimensional wafer of a man into flesh and blood, Leveck resorts to accentuating almost every line with hand movements, as if to compensate for his character's dramatic weakness. This tic mars an otherwise touching performance.
The second (and much more interesting) lesson I learned from Morbidity & Mortality concerns society's heavy and ultimately self-deceptive dependence upon therapies of all kinds to deal with pain. Michael's sudden desire to say kaddish (a Jewish prayer of mourning) and Carolyn's fantasy-fueled love affair with Anil an American who happens to have brown skin and a foreign-sounding name, but whose attachment to Indian culture and customs amounts to little more than eating something vaguely spicy at a Queens curry house suggest that our usual coping mechanisms, whether religious or romantic, provide only the scantest illusion of relief. And here's the kicker: Despite the group therapyÐstyle setup and the constant references to dead newborns, Baron's play doesn't really focus on how the loss of a baby leads to the breakup of its grieving parents. What emerges, in fact, is a sense that the deceased infant isn't the source of the couple's split. She's just an excuse for it.
Using a painful event in one's life to justify disagreeable or anti-social behavior is termed "woundology" by psychic energy guru Carolyn Myss. According to Myss, the "most acceptable wound is to lose one's child." Around 30,000 babies die in the U.S. each year (and many more in the developing world), yet infant deaths seem so unnatural that we go to extreme lengths to acknowledge a wounded person's greater claim to pain, granting him or her license, if necessary, to go off the deep end.
Morbidity & Mortality's Carolyn exemplifies this theory. Viewed from a woundology perspective, the play seems especially nihilistic, not only undermining the characters' motives but also refuting the very architecture upon which the work hangs. Having been enticed into a communal setting to listen to the harrowing story of three people who might need our help, we're alarmed to discover that we've been drawn in under a false pretext. Sure, Carolyn, Michael, and Anil need support, and the play's therapy-couched structure lures us into thinking that we should sympathize with Carolyn's wayward actions. But by exposing the trappings of therapy as a sham, Baron's drama ends up doing quite the opposite: Morbidity & Mortality is a thrilling indictment of a society that approves of men and women who use their wounds to serve selfish ends.