Critics May Give 'The Gene Pool' Accolades, But What Are They Saluting?
By Mari Wadsworth
BORDERLANDS excels at taking chances, and The Gene Pool, written by acclaimed Washington, D.C., playwright Christi Stewart-Brown, is no exceptis, Claire (Carlisle Ellis) and Mira (Suzi List), the moms of 18-year-old Peter (charmingly played by newcomer Michael Yarema). Peter is the product of artificial insemination, and the search for his "father" (one oft-repeated tenet of the work is that active sperm does not a parent make) provides one counterpoint to what is otherwise a rather silly comedy.
And we do mean silly.
One can't be sure of the playwright's intention. To skewer the notion of the perfect family? To show how mainstream, even to the point of retro, the '90s gay couple has become? (One of Mira's quippy lines is that their last names were White and Black, so they compromised on the name Gray.) Clearly, Brown has fun with the modern family dynamic.
Moreover, she places her strong, female leads in the unenviable roles of the stereotypical nuclear family, a la late '50s/early '60s: Claire is the patriarchal, preoccupied provider, and Mira is the doting, effervescent housewife. Peter, of course, is the perfect teen: just defiant enough to be normal; and he's still a virgin on his 18th birthday. His first girlfriend Paige (in a nearly flawless supporting role by Danielle Coleman), has agreed to "help him out" on this last count. Her probing questions into Peter's family life are also the catalyst for the story's real climax--finding Harold (Dwayne Palmer), the anonymous sperm donor.
The Gene Pool has quite a few funny lines, and some stellar moments of naturalistic acting. Among them are when Claire pats her distraught son on the shoulder after he fails to get an erection on the "big night," saying, "Sometimes that happens and it's perfectly normal, Peter; nothing to worry about," meanwhile shrugging wide-eyed at Mira behind his back; and the self-satisfied glow of the happy couple, looking newly confident and relaxed on the couch, until peppy Mira observes the difference and puts one and one together: "You did it!" she calls from the sidelines, "You're not a virgin anymore!" as the two teens, suddenly teens again, dissolve in mortified groans and protests. List also makes the most of a solo moment on stage, the very image of resigned melancholy in her empty house.
As always, Borderlands puts a lot of sweat equity into its sets, sound and lighting, eliciting a professional package that's solid if not extravagant. The constructed living room here, complete with operative front door, dimmed lights, and an off-stage bedroom and kitchen, looks ready for a Realtor.
But there are also some problems: List and Ellis, both fine actresses, at times seem outright miscast here. Ellis' transition from dramatic to comedic is rough: She seems glowering rather than concerned; and her role cries out for more physical comedy to counterbalance her serious delivery. But if List and Ellis turn out performances that are forced at times, it's because that's exactly what their characters are: forced into a role that just doesn't fit.
Behind the laugh-track lines (a nod to the family TV sitcom) are larger questions: Why is it more funny, or at all funny, to see a gay couple act like a straight couple? And furthermore, why is it that when a woman chooses to act like a man, invariably she acts like a bad man? (Claire is that thankfully bygone archetype of maleness: a self-absorbed, cheating spouse whose main identity is tied to her occupation.)
If not the gender equivalent of blackface, it still seems like a cheap laugh. In his book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, essayist Daniel Harris eloquently argues that assimilation and a more mainstream media profile have compromised "the gayest aspects of being gay--camp, wit, style, estheticism, creativity and the art of brilliant conversation." It's something to consider.
Now, this play reportedly premiered in D.C. to rave reviews; and The Washington Post called it a "bright domestic comedy." It's traveled to New York City and Minneapolis, as well as Tucson. A screenplay is in development. Maybe it's a great play. Or maybe critics applaud knee-slappers like The Gene Pool not because they find them compelling, but because they're entirely non-threatening.
The Gene Pool is more than two women pretending to be lesbian moms for our amusement: It's a coming-of-age comedy, a light-hearted social satire, and a philosophical stance on what makes a family--commitment and good old-fashioned "being there." It's certainly worth seeing, if not for the yuks than for its underlying message.
For in the final analysis, the play succeeds even as it falls short, because it raises an important call to the arts community at large. Surely there is much more to be examined, much more that is uplifting and uproarious about gay life, than this farcical glimpse at the rainbow family next door.
The Gene Pool, a Borderlands Theatre production, continues through January 31 at the PCC Black Box Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Tickets range from $7 to $15. Call 882-7406 for reservations and information.
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