The messy business of procreation is at the center of Matthew-Lee Erlbach's sexually confused dramedy Sex of the Baby, now running at Access Theater Gallery Space. Erlbach has proved his talent as a playwright and actor over the past few years in other nooks of New York's off-Broadway scene. In 2013, he gave a tour-de-force performance in his multicharacter one-man play Handbook for an American Revolutionary at the Gym at Judson, followed by the witty burlesque show Eager to Lose, which he penned for a production at Ars Nova.
Sex of the Baby is the most traditionally structured play he's offered New York audiences — an old-fashioned group of friends sitting around a living room chatting about love, life, and the ever-looming future. The romantic exploits that ensue are by no means traditional, but a number of disappointingly conventional tropes invade Erlbach's conventional setting — even as his commentary on modern relationships and our new-fangled modes of reproduction aim for the highly conceptual.
The play opens amid a cozy first meeting in set designer Paul Tate DePoo III's well-furnished apartment between a young gay sculptor named Daniel (Devin Norik captures the new-wave flightiness of an unemployed artist) and his prospective surrogate, Bekah (Clea Alsip, bursting with a fiery, erotic energy). Daniel's partner Michael (a strong, straitlaced Korey Jackson) is slated to be the genetic father of their child, but since he is a busy film exec , Daniel has been given the secretarial duty of interviewing potential egg donors — and Daniel is far from pleased. The couple already seems to be on the rocks when Bekah enters the picture, but her instant connection with Daniel pushes them even farther apart. Labels be damned, Bekah's spiritual views on the miracle of life and the beauty in human creation jell with Daniel's artistic ideals — contrary to Michael's more pragmatic and conservative demeanor — igniting a sexual spark between the two. Bekah becomes the muse of Daniel's very own Venus de Milo, moving him to sculpt with newfound inspiration.
Erlbach plays fast and loose with the rules of sexual conduct, as well as the idea of creation as it relates to children, art, and every other potentially chaotic by-product of complex relationships. While Daniel and Michael venture into the world of surrogacy and Daniel births a clay masterpiece, their friends Erick (a reliably strong performance by Erlbach) and T'Kia (Marinda Anderson performing with infectious humor and sincerity) also find themselves locked in an unsatisfying relationship (partially due to Erick's suppressed feelings for Daniel) as they prepare for their own bundle of joy to arrive. The scope of what can be classified as our progeny and how we send it into the world is an interesting concept to investigate, but Erlbach gets lost in his own exploration, as vague artistic metaphors float in the ether with no clear landing pad.
When the play is not engaging in introspection, Michelle Bossy directs it as a farce, but without the sharp rhythms it needs to be a successful iteration of the genre. Bekah is shoved in a closet as the typical forbidden lover when Michael comes home early from a business trip; food is thrown at a climactic dinner party where everyone's secrets are revealed; and Ali Sohaili, whose character Hamadi, a Syrian art gallery owner and painfully terrible comedian, does little more than serve as the play's classic fool — spit take and all. Insightful commentary on relationships and the treacherous offspring they leave in their wake hovers near the surface of Erlbach's new work, but has not been molded with the precision it needs to reach its lofty goals. As Daniel says, quoting Michelangelo over his sculpting table, "I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set it free." Sex of the Baby just needs a little more carving.