Karen Woodward Massey and Alisha Jansky
in The Maternal Instinct
(Photo ©  Rob Massey)
Karen Woodward Massey and Alisha Jansky
in The Maternal Instinct
(Photo © Rob Massey)
[Ed. Note: This is a selective review roundup of shows in the seventh annual Midtown International Theatre Festival.]

********************

The Maternal Instinct

Lillian doesn't think she'll make a good mother, but this has nothing to do with her being a lesbian. In Monica Bauer's funny and moving new play The Maternal Instinct, the playwright sidesteps issues of morality that are often examined by works dealing with gay parenthood. Instead, she focuses on the hopes and fears that the situation can provoke for a couple.

As the play opens, Lillian (Karen Woodward Massey) is celebrating her 40th birthday in the company of her girlfriend Sarah (Alisha Jansky), her best friend and colleague Fred (Stephen Cooper), and her sister Emma (Rena Baskin). Sarah has a birthday surprise for the group: She announces her intention to have a baby. But Lillian is less than thrilled about this "present." The baby issue becomes a source of tension and conflict between the two women, and things get even more complicated once Fred agrees to be the biological father.

The cast performs well under Melissa J. Wentworth's crisp direction. Massey's Lillian has an acerbic demeanor that only partially disguises her fear. Jansky's Sarah is bright-eyed and winsome, but the actress shows us the character's hard edges when appropriate. Cooper's Fred is charming in a mild-mannered, almost pathetic way. Baskin doesn't get too much stage time, yet she is effective in her brief appearances; so is Elise Audrey Manning as a homeless, near-mute, pregnant woman whom several of the characters meet.

Bauer's writing is engaging and witty, prompting plenty of laughter even as the playwright delves into subjects including alcoholism, biologically inherited traits, child-rearing, trust, and deception. This Instinct is right on target.

********************

Shoot the Dog

Set in a present-day Manhattan bar, Brittany Rostron's Shoot the Dog shows that the author has potential. It concerns the conflicts and connections among a disparate trio: African American bartender Jax (Garrett Hendricks); Danny (Matt Wise), a young, white college student; and a sexy South Asian American woman named Yasmine (Siobhan Parisi). Rostron subverts stereotypes and makes each of her main characters complex individuals whose relationship to issues of race, patriotism, and family are more nuanced than they initially appear.

Unfortunately, the dialogue often seems forced, artificially creating the issues of the play rather than allowing them to arise more naturally. This is particularly true of the sequence in which Jax and Yasmine attempt to engage Danny in conversation while he would rather nurse his drink in silence.

Hendricks brings a vibrant energy to the role of Jax, and Wise nicely underplays the soft-spoken Danny. Parisi plays Yasmine a little too broadly at times, but she has nice chemistry with Wise. Rounding out the cast are Kari Floberg as Danny's sort-of-ex-girlfriend Jessica, and Thomas Matthews as Jessica's new boy-toy Raz. Neither of these characters are well developed, and the actors play them rather simplistically.

Despite such flaws, the play is ultimately quite touching -- and, at a breezy 70 minutes, it's well worth watching.

********************

The Girls of Summer

The similarities between writer/director Layon Gray's new drama The Girls of Summer and Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play border on plagiarism. Both works begin with the murder of an African American authority figure; both chronicle a young African American man's attempt to get to the bottom of things; and both feature interviews and flashbacks with those who were subordinate to the murder victim.

Set in 1945, Girls is about an African American women's baseball team whose coach (Baadja-Lyne Odums) is murdered prior to an exhibition game that was to have been played against a white women's team. While the death has been deemed a suicide, Peter (played by Gray), an intern for the Chicago Tribune, conducts his own investigation. The stories told by the young baseball players are not necessarily reliable, and sometimes they contradict one another. Was the coach a predatory lesbian? Was she a misunderstood woman whose hard exterior masked a more tender side? Was she killed by angry whites who wanted to sabotage the game, or by members of her own team? Unfortunately, the drama limps along in disconnected scenes that grow progressively more tedious.

The play also includes a clunky framing device wherein, decades later, another reporter (John O. Nelson) asks questions of an elderly janitor (William Lewis Baker) about the events of that summer. These sequences interrupt the flow of the narrative and seem unnecessary, but cutting them wouldn't be enough to fix this unoriginal, predictable play.

********************

Das Brat

Towards the end of writer/director Eric Bland's Das Brat, a woman hands out free drinks -- beer, soda, water -- to the audience. This is just about the only positive thing that this otherwise tedious and plodding production has going for it.

The action of the play centers around Jarrod (Scott Eckert), a young man who abandoned his girlfriend Ekatarina (Cara Marsh Sheffler) and newborn child in order to bum around Germany. Upon his return, he must deal with both Ekatarina and her sister Hazel (Bibiane Choi), who understandably have a few issues with his behavior.

Bland has created no sympathetic figures with whom the audience can identify with; Jarrod is a self-absorbed jerk, Ekatarina is manipulative and possessive, and Hazel is just strange. None of the performers, who also include Noah Burger as Kevin, make their characters remotely convincing. Their acting often seems inept.

Moreover, Bland has made a number of bizarre staging choices that include someone bouncing a racquetball against a wall for no apparent reason, actors doing sit-ups while engaging in dialogue and breaking out into "spontaneous" dance sequences. While such avant-garde techniques have been meaningful when performed by companies such as The Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service, here they seem trite and almost painful to watch.