Neither Here Nor There

Female? Educated, with good genes, whatever that means? Age thirty-one or younger, a non-smoker, with no history of STDs and regular periods? You're in luck, young lady: you can find employment as a pregnancy surrogate! There will be a cycle of regular “blood draws” (yes, needles!) some travel, an invasive procedure and then of course the pregnancy, but it's a good way to make a life, and a living. Especially if you're broke. A quick Google search of the phrase “surrogate mother” throws up lots of clinics across America, from New York to Cincinnati to Portland, Oregon where women can give this gift to richer, less fecund women. In 2006, Oprah reported that increasing numbers of American women are exploring cheaper surrogates – the women of India. Screenwriter and playwright Jennifer Maisel saw that show and decided to write a play about the issue, There or Here. Maisel created Neera (played by Purva Bedi), a poor Indian woman who decides to put her body up for rent, and, later, starts rethinking the decision.

Unfortunately, Maisel also decided to limit Neera's scenes to a very few, give us zero insight into the character's thoughts, feelings, or struggles, and to focus her play on the self-centered, boring, and incoherently-rambling upper-class American woman who avails herself and her husband of Neera's gestational assistance. That decision weakens the potentially powerful concept --that decision, in combination with the play's many instances of bald exposition, psychologically improbable action, reduction of the complex subcontinental nation of India to a vaguely-depicted monocultural dystopia, and apparently purposeless nonlinear chronology.

Hypothethetical Productions's staging of the play, at the Fourteenth Street Y Theater, is made watchable by a few good actors. These are Bedi, playing, among her several roles, an Indian call center employee with an impressive range of facial reactions to her American callers' babbling rants; and Shalin Agarwal in the doubled roles of stoical, angry Indian cab driver Rajit and as Raj, a cheerful, pleased-to-serve Indian-American techie who is also the American mother-to-be's equally self-obsessed mother Ellen's (Judy Rosenblatt) improbable toyboy. Agarwal differentiates his two characters clearly, and is most expressive when his characters are silently watching and listening to the arguments of others. In these instances, his expressions and body language reveal more than the dialogue does.

Maisel's view of human nature often goes against the grain of observable life. The audience is expected to believe that the love of American couple Robyn (Annie Meisels) and Ajay (Alok Tewari) is worth saving, and makes it a shame that they haven't got kids with whom to share it. However, Robyn talks mainly about herself and her supposed needs. She and Ajay need a baby because Robyn has been diagnosed with cancer, so they'd better harvest the genetic material while they can -- without delaying the chemo, hence the surrogate. Ajay's hobbies include loudly declaring his total alienation from India -- where he was born -- in all but the genetic sense and buying phone sex from Indian sex workers at a call center.

Robyn also talks on the phone very often with a technical support worker at an Indian call center, who claims to be "Angelina" from "Tulsa." Angelina tolerates Robyn's use of her as a free psychoanalyst, best buddy, and general sounding board, even though it seems unlikely that this would not get found out and jeopardize Angelina's employment. Call workers do not generally have one-person offices, and, as anyone who has called a call center recently knows, "calls may be recorded for quality-assurance and/or training purposes."

Robyn and Ajay are so unsympathetic and one-dimensional, I did not care whether they got anything they wanted, be that babies, phone sex, marital bliss, a cancer-free life together, or all of the above.

Making everything worse is the play's oversimplified India. For example, the play uses two languages: each scene is subtitled in both. They are English, and, well... Hindi? This reviewer doesn't speak any of India's languages, but recalls that there are more than one.

There or Here tries to say a lot of insightful things about intercultural interactions, India's economic boom, American outsourcing of vital and not-so-vital jobs, commerce in human bodies and lives, motherhood and metaphysics, but Maisel never digs deeply into any of these. Consequently, There or Here is neither here nor there.

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