If you think it's hard to write good political theater, think about how hard it must be to write a good play about hard science: all those cold facts, those rigid experiments, those black-and-white subjects. No wonder playwright Jeremy Kareken cheats, shifting away from molecular biology and toward the far murkier realms of ethics and, later, love. It's no surprise, either, that Sweet, Sweet Motherhood exaggerates the central characters, the self-deprecating Professor Henry Stein (Michael De Nola) and his polar opposite, the gutsy, sexually-explicit student Shelley McAnn (Caroline Cooney). "At the moment I'm thinking to myself, her breasts actually are a cup size larger but I have a job, and can't spend all day contemplating her bosom. So I get down to business. (to Shelley) How was your summer?" "Da bom. I rawked da hizzle." Never mind that characters don't actually talk like this--at least they're not dry!
Except . . . well, a play about science would, ostensibly, be something new, would be exploring new ideas to their logical ends. This, on the other hand, is an exasperating banal play that uses science--and the contributions of Professor Lee M. Silver--as a prop; literally, Stein's between-scenes lectures involve blackboards, slide-shows, and clever anecdotes like "Two mice walk into a bar...." When Shelley, trying to gain a prestigious award, recklessly injects herself with chimpanzee sperm, the process she's used, ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), is shoved to the background, and melodrama ensues--will Stein be the father, at first metaphorically, and then, out of the blue, legally? Stein explodes at her, "Let's extract the tiniest infinitesimal drop of academic rigor--" and she cuts him off: "Dude, unlax. I'm not dropping monkey boy for the next few minutes..." The play's not even really about abortion, either (with the science operating as a delivery vehicle); when Shelley starts masturbating in the bathroom to the sound of Stein's stern voice, or when her water breaks and she cracks, despite supposedly being in intense pain, "Looks like you really do make me wet," you'll be begging for some hard science, too. Because without it, the play's just one big aimless joke, and things like Schrodinger's Cat are just being name-dropped for extra credit.
Honestly, these things are exciting for the first twenty minutes of the two-hour show, and both de Nola and Cooney are consistent in their depictions of the character, even as Kareken's script starts shifting from the office into the imagination. But director Michael Bigelow Dixon has nowhere to take them; their banter in the second act is much the same as it was in the first place--they're still arguing about the ethics of the experiment--as if nothing has changed, even though Cooney's walking around with a baby bump. Dixon also never really cranks up the volume of the show: even as they stray from scientific topics, de Nola maintains his unaffected, scholarly tone, and Cooney keeps up her irritatingly wide-eyed lingo. And while Ray Neufeld's realistic set is terrific, it doesn't fit the morphing structure of the play, which call for a more symbolic set--something like that from Rachel Axler's Smudge.
But what kills Sweet, Sweet Motherhood is this simple fact: even forgiving the murky hypothesis and the uncontrolled experiment, it has no conclusion. Professor Stein warns that he's a harsh grader, and is not afraid to give such work an unsatisfactory grade, forcing those students to find a new advisor or to "graduate with an English degree or something." This uneven, unrealistic play might not even manage a good grade there.