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Inked Baby

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

LaChanze and Angela Lewis
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The title of Christina Anderson's new play, Inked Baby, which just opened at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, is appropriate in more ways than one. It's packed with characters so sharply drawn they may as well have sprung fully formed from Anderson's mind and pen. The infant of the title is marked before its birth for reasons it will never understand and the adults in its life will never be able to justify. And amid the delicately drawn and carefully blended lines that define this look at surviving an uncertain world, a few smudges mar an otherwise distinct achievement.

But it's tempting to want to look past them given what Anderson gets right. Her language seamlessly blends shiny-urban crispness with dark-alley vernacular. And her plotting is involved and intricate but seldom self-consciously complicated (at least early on). Greer (Damon Gupton) and Gloria (LaChanze), married to each other but unable to have a child even by artificial methods, are torn between their lower-middle-class existence and their human desires to be parents. Even knowing what they might be getting themselves into, they convince Gloria's sister, Lena (Angela Lewis), to conceive a baby with Greer (the old-fashioned way) that he and Gloria will raise together. Anderson somehow makes this fanciful premise unassailably logical.

Of course, with all the usual stressors positioned at unusual angles, small troubles quickly become big deals. Gloria isn't bonding with either the baby or her husband. Lena, intimately involved with both and yet on the outside, seeks solace in her friend Ky (Nikkole Salter), who vanishes for mysterious reasons. Gloria flies into the arms of a tattoo artist named Odium (Che Ayende) she meets by chance the night of her baby shower. And as they're waiting for the baby to arrive, they're tested (or "sampled," to use the play's creepy parlance) by an imposing nurse (Nana Mensah) investigating them and their neighborhood.

They find out soon enough what she's looking for, and the answer is (much) worse than their fears had led them to believe. This discovery forces them to realize that their enemies aren't each other, but instead something much more elemental and nurturing that's been tainted by an outside intrusion. And which, apparently, is transforming them into...

Well, that's where things derail. This extra dose of the supernatural - or, more precisely, the ham-handedly symbolic - makes it harder, not easier, to absorb the realistic family crises at the play's center. At the height of your involvement with their problems, Anderson shoves them out of their urgent existence of doctors' offices, living room boredoms and barroom reveling, and sputtering infidelities, and it's not so easy to get captivated again. The last third of the play, which should be the most powerful as everyone's expectations and betrayals reach critical mass, fizzles rather than flames as it struggles to support more weight than its earlier construction allows.

Director Kate Whoriskey has provided a stark, pungently paced staging that highlights every terror Anderson has devised, and Jason Lyons's lights hauntingly lay out the physical and emotional playing spaces on which these people spar. Inked Baby surges with adrenaline, but it would have been considerably more effective had Anderson simply let them fight and unleash their pent-up needs and long-ignored desires in an ring of unforgiving realism. Once they become star hoppers, traipsing across the cosmic significances of their love and their land, they stop demanding you pay attention to them.

This is in no way the fault of the actors, all of whom navigate their roles' complexities with an impressive ease. Gupton and Lewis are right on target in their opening seduction scene, capturing the nervousness, uncertainty, and implications of what they're undertaking, qualities that later evolve into vividly shaky people. (Lewis is especially endearing as she becomes increasingly tangled in Greer and Gloria's squabbling and her own careening hormones.) LaChanze, in a rare non-musical stage appearance, brings a potent collection of shadowy colors to the tormented Gloria that make even her most questionable choices difficult to discount. The other performers, who include Michael Genet as the trio's doctor, are just as intense in their roles.

Until it's time for them to confront their soil as well as their souls. No one here is well-enough equipped to wage this particular battle on two fronts, and the harder they try the sillier Inked Baby seems. Anderson, however, is a serious talent with a unique voice, and will hopefully get the guidance and the experience she needs to reach her fullest artistic potential. For that to happen, though, she will have to learn just what her characters do: Sometimes the things you add to a healthy ecosystem for all the right reasons can affect it in all the wrong ways.

Inked Baby
Through April 5
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: Playwrights Horizons

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