Indescribable agony is hard to grasp if you haven't experienced it. With any luck, those of us who haven't will never know those torturous depths of physical and emotional suffering, let alone when they're brought on by a tragedy that is itself almost unthinkable: Say, for example, the death of a baby within its very first hours outside the womb.
If few of us will be able to closely relate to that kind of curious panic, in which decisions spin comically out of our control and feelings become exotic and unwelcome, achieving a close approximation is not impossible. It happens in Courtney Baron's new play, A Very Common Procedure, which MCC is presenting in a stinging production directed by Michael Greif that translates the joy and despair of romantic and parental relationships into the ache of an open wound that can probably never be closed.
If the territory sounds well-explored, it is - to an extent. A year ago, Manhattan Theatre Club produced the New York premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, about another family struggling with losing a young child. And at first blush, A Very Common Procedure could well be taken for a retread, in which its husband and wife strain against their loss while trying - and frequently failing - to rekindle the sensual and sexual sparks that once so attracted them to each other.
The similarities, however, end there. Whereas Lindsay-Abaire was content with a four-hanky, Lifetime Television-style melodrama, Baron has insisted that her play remain firmly entrenched in the theatrical - if not always to its credit, or our comfort. The grieving husband and wife here, Carolyn and Michael Goldenhersch (Lynn Collins and Stephen Kunken), narrate much of the show directly to us, dragging us through their present and past troubles indiscriminately - sometimes, seemingly randomly - in disjointed, disconnected ways that don't always immediately involve us. One minute they might be fighting, the next they might reenact their first date, later one might comment on something the other got wrong.
Full scenes do occasionally emerge from this, but it gradually becomes clear they're guiding us on a white-water rafting trip down their shared deadly stream of consciousness - no life vests provided. And what could too easily degenerate into maudlin declarations and tepid displays of dishonest rage become both more familiar and more unusual: It's not the loss that's catapulting Carolyn and Michael into bizarre turmoil, but their attempts to reconstruct the life they had before they lost the daughter they never got a chance to name. These manifest themselves most notably in Anil Patel (Amir Arison), a handsome young doctor with whom Carolyn has become enamored, one might even say obsessed. She met him at the hospital, you see, because he's the man who killed her baby.
That routine heart operation gone horrifically wrong leads into a series of dangerous trysts for Carolyn and Anil, which encompass the allure of power, morbid fascination, and physical attraction, yes, but also racism (Carolyn has always been intrigued by Indian people) and, most importantly, their mutual desire for absolution. Each can only receive it from the other, and neither can bestow it, but without it nothing in the world makes sense. As their friendship and love grow, the overwhelming need for something so intangible bonds them together in a way that leaves Michael - who, desperate to move on and forget the baby's brief life ever happened, is perhaps the neediest of all - trapped on the outside.
Yet despite this perfect soap-opera setup, Baron never allows us to cash in on any cheaply emotional dividends with the likes of cathartic crying sessions or even tidy resolutions of most of the play's tangled threads of story. Right and wrong become confusing in trying times, and instead of keeping us at an intellectual distance, Baron implicates us in her characters' choices. She lets them loose and allows them to feed on each other's bodies and souls, but refuses to take sides or let us do the same. No sentimentality is allowed here, and Greif prevents even a drop from seeping into the proceedings. He ensures that whatever happens is always dryly at home on Robin Vest's almost distractingly clinical set: a hospital waiting room, one place on earth where time never seems to pass.
Unfortunately, the performers aren't entirely up to the challenge of Baron's searing examination of human confusion in time of crisis. Kunken and Collins are bright young presences who infuse the funnier scenes and digressions with vivacious life, but become increasingly lost the more the play suffocates in seriousness. Collins recovers in time to deliver a blistering performance in the fraught final scene, the only one in which the play embraces convention long enough to topple it, but by then the damage is already done. Arison captures Anil's passionless stoicism, but too effectively details his indifference: We can never understand exactly what Carolyn sees in him.
That might well be the point, that in circumstances like these we never see others - or ourselves - clearly. If so, it's too well made, adding a layer of visual obviousness to a play and production otherwise steeped in the honest woe we inherently respect but don't openly recognize until it's too late. While sharper performances would cut deeper, it's perhaps just as well that these actors dull the blow. It's hard enough to maintain footing on solid ground with these characters riding on a wave of pain so convincing, it often seems as though it will sweep you up right along with them.
A Very Common Procedure
Photo 1 - Lynn Collins and Stephen Kunken