New Review: Inked Baby at Playwrights Horizons

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inkedbabyFor Back Stage.

Here’s the review:

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How do playwrights know their story can stand on its own – that additional plot strands aren’t needed to round out the experience? Watching Christina Anderson’s ambitious, imaginative Inked Baby, one suspects that neither director Kate Whoriskey nor some insightful dramaturge ever assured the playwright that her basic tale was enough to move an audience. Lacking such assurance, Inked Baby has a surfeit of themes, variations, and metaphors. The production is beautifully acted, and Anderson’s ear for dialogue crackles through unflinchingly real characters, but the final effect is a muddle.

Married couple Gloria (LaChanze) and Greer (Damon Gupton) cannot conceive, so Lena (Angela Lewis), Gloria’s sister, consents to bear Greer’s child. Growing ever bigger and with time on her hands, Lena reconnects with an old friend, Ky (Nikkole Salter). Meanwhile, Gloria falls into an eddy of self-doubt, climaxing in an affair with Odlum (Che Ayende), a tattoo artist. Information about the sisters’ childhood and adulthood is conveyed, and there’s history between Lena and Ky to get through, too.

Then atop all this is overlaid a reappearing medical assistant (Nana Mensah) who takes samples – hair, teeth – from this or that character. In due course it’s revealed that an illness caused by environmental poisoning at a nearby waste-treatment plant has infected the townsfolk. It’s first called a virus, then simply a “contamination,” and its most frightening manifestation is actual earth oozing from the skin, as Greer demonstrates when he grabs a fistful from his shoulder and gently disperses it to the floor like sand.

Had Anderson hewed to her core notion of a wife having misgivings over her sister’s surrogate pregnancy – and the efforts of Dr. Marion (Michael Genet) to moderate the emotions rising in everyone as the due date draws near – she would have concentrated Inked Baby’s power, especially as Whoriskey succeeds at keeping certain scenes simmering. And while the Odlum story line resolves oddly, it adds a measure of sweetness to the play’s bitter undertone, thanks to LaChanze’s delicate portrayal of a woman emotionally gutted by her physical limitations.

But Anderson’s virus idea – and disconcerting images like the medical assistant literally wresting teeth from people’s mouths – tips the scales. Is it a metaphor for AIDS in the African-American community? What does the tattoo Odlum gives Gloria symbolize? Could the answer arrive at the end of the play, in the cry of the newborn with symptoms of the disease?