Playwright Matt Williams created the TV series Roseanne, co-created the TV series Home Improvement, and was a writer on The Cosby Show, which is to say that the man knows a little something about domestic comedies in which hard-working parents love and nurture their large families. In his new play, Actually, We’re F**ked, he attempts to go in a different direction, exploring whether two young couples who are barely holding their marriages together can stop fretting, navel-gazing, and betraying each other long enough to have, or even want, a ch**d.
In this situation comedy, Williams’s television roots show up in the way that his characters so quickly absorb earth-shattering situations in order to speed the evening along. But the comedy is mostly missing. This is partly the fault of the playwright for creating unlikable millennials who are full of angst, and partly the fault of director John Pasquin and his cast, who refuse to unearth the absurdity that Williams has seeded throughout his intermissionless production.
Each one of the play’s four characters is in some state of hormonal upheaval. Rachel (Mairin Lee) is pregnant. Her husband, Nick (Ben Rappaport), is revealed to be a survivor of testicular cancer. Rachel’s best friend, Molly (Keren Lugo), has polycystic ovary syndrome. “I’m producing higher-than normal amounts of male hormones. Inside my body, I’m basically a man,” she informs us. And Molly’s husband, Frank (Gabriel Sloyer), is just plain horny, albeit for the wrong woman. However, the foursome are promisingly introduced in the opening scene not by way of their mood swings, but calmly and cleverly involved in intellectual discourse.
Over dinner at Rachel and Nick’s apartment, the couples discuss the ethics of bringing a kid into a miserable world that, as Frank says, is in its “extinction phase.” The pros and cons of pro-choice are also debated with Frank delving into mansplaining: “Pro-choice means choosing if and when to have children, which is something I can support without approving of abortion.” In a twist that seems out of touch with the times, it is ultimately the men here who dictate the biological fate of their women. Molly turns out to be farcically obsessed with her fertility (“I even have a hand-held monitor that measures cervical mucus”), while Rachel is indecisive about abortion and wholly unexcited about her choice of mates. Nick, meanwhile, has his seed locked away at a sperm bank, to use at his leisure, and Frank avoids sex with Molly because he is not, and may never be, ready to be a dad.
Was it Chekhov who said that once testicular cancer is introduced, scrotum jokes will probably not get a laugh? Suffice it to say that the disclosure of Nick’s delicate condition gets the ball rolling in the wrong direction. And if it is unfathomable that Nick had never shared this bit of information with his wife of four years, it is just plain odd that he would be so low on testosterone but have a full beard and a thick head of hair. That Nick teaches at a public school and doesn’t care about money would make him seem affable, were it not for the cruelty he shows his spouse. Rappaport works his way through this minefield of a role skillfully and with all due speed, stopping mid-way for an emotionally powerful scene with Lee where the duo reach their breaking point.
Molly is one of those characters who is supposed to seem humorously dim and unaware at first, but is then revealed to be freakishly brilliant and sensitive. In this case her manic preoccupation with bathroom tiles and “goddess energy” give way to a woman capable of hacking the email server of a large corporation while wresting control of her love life. But Lugo is having none of it. She presents Molly’s ridiculous side so seriously that her serious side seems ridiculous. Williams does not help matters by giving her a seduction scene where she uses, literally, the oldest trick in the book, tempting Nick with an apple.
Sloyer suffers through an equally made-for-TV bit when Frank’s anti-fatherhood stance melts away at the sight of a sonogram. Such moments make Rachel seem the most intelligent of the group, having had the foresight to edit her wedding vows to read, “We shall remain married as long as love shall last.”
Matt Williams’s Actually, We’re F**ked runs through April 7 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit cherrylanetheatre.org.