When Harriet Met Sally

Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the birth control pill, may have helped usher in the sexual revolution of the sixties but, as a playwright, he is far from groundbreaking. Relentlessly formulaic is a more apt description. The plot runs like a movie on the Hallmark Channel; you quickly know exactly how Taboos will end. Harriet, a urologist, and Sally, a striking San Franciscan newscaster, meet on a blind date; the ultimate tediousness of this play is signaled on the park bench where they sit. Guess what? We find out that lesbians are normal people, too, with cute idiosyncrasies. Harriet simply hates jeans! And Sally can’t stand cell phones!

Flash forward some months. Harriet and Sally are now a happy domestic partnership and Sally wants a child. Harriet’s brother, Max, a sensitive Dudley Do-Right public defender who just loves everything, gladly donates his sperm to the endeavor. For some incredulous reason transparently essential to the introduction of conflict, Sally invites her long-estranged and fervent Christian fundamentalist brother, Cameron, a genteel Mississippian, to the fertilization party. Conflict ensues.

Later, Harriet, coldly detached from baby Tucker, and frustrated by feeling like a “bystander,” wants—no, needs—to have a baby of her own. The entire play is a vehicle for Djerassi to question society’s mores and ethical standpoints about assisted reproduction, through a discussion of Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), a technique that injects a single sperm cell into an egg.

Molding the action around the characters’ availing themselves of various artificial reproductive techniques makes for a contrived plot with extreme situations. Cameron’s fanatically religious wife, Priscilla, happens to be childless, so Cameron gets one of Harriet’s embryos for Priscilla, without disclosing its source. Curiously, none of these people of education and means, aware of the possibly unprecedented situation they are creating, seems to have sought legal counsel, or even signed anything, telegraphing an inevitable argument about parental rights.

Djerassi stacks the cards by selecting the most stereotypical personalities he can find, so that nearly everyone is a caricature. The virulently homophobic Priscilla (fittingly nicknamed “Prissy”), hurls around Bible quotes and instantly drops to her knees in prayer when she thinks lustful thoughts. Although the work is structured, in part, as a comedy, the jokes are derivative and worn. There is exactly one genuinely funny line in the whole play.

Nothing is really very “taboo” in this production, either; in fact most of Djerassi’s general themes have settled comfortably into the realm of the passé, some already having been chewed over and spit out by Hollywood. And the characters are as vanilla and sanitized as they come. Aside from the obligatory girl-on-girl kiss (conveniently interrupted so it doesn’t get too far) the characters seem oddly non-sexual.

We have trouble caring about Harriet and Sally because they’re so clinical, so deliberate. Ultimately, I didn’t even care how, or if, these characters would navigate these uncharted philosophical waters. What I really wanted was a psychologist to sort out some of the issues of these self-absorbed individuals.

All the actors are competent but the only standout is John Preston as Cameron, who actually has some comedic chops and tries to make the best of the limp lines the script provides him. Direction by Melissa Maxwell is efficient, though we could do without the CD-101 light jazz-inflected scene changes. One dull arrangement adorns the entire play: a dining room table and some simple chairs set against white walls; it’s antiseptic and pallid, like the characters.

In the end, the play is too long, introducing layer upon layer of unlikely scenarios. Try as it might to grapple with profound questions of reproductive ethics, Taboos, ensconced as it is in a suffocatingly prescribed template, simply ends up shooting blanks.

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