LaChanze and Angela Lewis in Inked Baby
(© Joan Marcus)
LaChanze and Angela Lewis in Inked Baby
(© Joan Marcus)
There's a compelling story buried somewhere in Christina Anderson's promising, yet frustrating new play, Inked Baby, now making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. There may even be two compelling stories within this 85-minute work. Unfortunately, the playwright's insistence on combining two stylistically different narratives has yielded choppy, unsatisfying results, with neither storyline benefiting from being linked to the other.

The primary plot revolves around married couple Gloria (LaChanze) and Greer (Damon Gupton), who have enlisted Gloria's sister, Lena (Angela Lewis) to be the birth mother for the child that Gloria and Greer are unable to have themselves. Having spent the bulk of their savings on medical treatments that failed to produce a pregnancy that Gloria could carry to term, they've decided to conceive the child by more natural means. There's plenty of dramatic potential in this setup, and the play begins promisingly with a tender and awkward interaction between Greer and Lena, as they prepare to engage in sexual intercourse. The inevitable emotional and psychological repercussions of this act are plausibly introduced and tentatively explored, without resorting to cliché.

The problems begin with the introduction of the play's secondary plot, involving a mysterious virus that is said to be going around the area in which the characters live and work. The way that both the script and director Kate Whoriskey handle the medical testing scenes, however, is to awkwardly shift from a more naturalistic drama to a sort of sci-fi mode. A medical assistant (Nana Mensah) extracts samples from her patients in a violating manner, while attaching labels to their bodies to indicate what kind of tests are being performed on them. The symptoms that eventually begin to manifest from this illness include parts of the body seemingly turning into dirt.

While this scenario does result in increased dramatic tension, it introduces a whole new set of issues that are not adequately explored. Worse, it distracts from the far more interesting journeys that the play's primary trio are all going on. By play's end, many of the thornier emotional issues are left unresolved as the focus shifts to the after-effects of the bizarre malady that has serious repercussions for everyone, including the newborn baby.

LaChanze initially depicts Gloria as someone who hides behind an outward show of formality, but the Tony Award-winning actress -- best known for her luminous performance in the musical The Color Purple -- lets us see more and more of the anger, frustration, and pent-up desire that such a façade hides. And thanks to Gloria's chance meeting with a handsome tattoo artist named Odlum (the charming Che Ayende), LaChanze is allowed to convincingly convey the gradual emotional release that Gloria experiences.

Lewis is fully believable throughout the play, capturing Lena's many moods and the shifting nuances of her interactions with other characters, including longtime friend Ky (Nikkole Salter) and the family doctor (Michael Genet). Gupton likewise brings out the subtleties in Greer's changing relationship to his wife, and his attempts to hold on to his family. But ultimately, despite the fine work of the entire cast, the play itself doesn't cohere as well as it should.