As states have limited abortion rights and courts across the country have upheld or overturned these decrees, the past year has seen a marked increase in theater, film, and other media about abortion. Myths and madness surrounding the right to choose return in The Appointment, which played at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop in 2019 and is now a resident in WP Theater's space program.
The musical satire from Philadelphia devising company Lightning Rod Special tackles the abortion debate with the panache of clownery suited for the irrationality of life in post-Roe v. Wade America. Written by LRS co-artistic directors Scott R. Sheppard and Alice Yorke (both of whom also perform), company member Alex Bechtel, and director Eva Steinmetz, The Appointment straddles two worlds: the unborn world of a Bouffon chorus of fetuses, and two regular days at a cash-only abortion clinic. The seven players strip themselves of the cumbersome, grotesque fetus costumes designed by Rebecca Kanach to become doctors, clinic aids, and women waiting a required 24 hours post-consultation to get their abortions. (Eighteen states have mandatory 24-hour waiting periods; six require 72 hours.)
Though the design of the fetuses and their raucous singing make for an entertaining premise, the execution feels more hokey than clever. The fetuses' whining voices hammer home the point that babies cry, that they make many demands, that people care more about them than the people they could become. At this point in the war against abortion rights, seeing adult-size fetuses onstage does not feel subversive, but more like a comedy sketch with no footing.
The ensemble's attempts to endear us to these unborn don't always succeed; their wails at the show's opening go on too long, and their attempts at self-discovery via modern dance feel disconnected. A highlight comes when three of them interact with the audience, led by comedic maestra and trained clown Brett Ashley Robinson,'whose demand for snacks escalates until an audience member sacrifices their granola bar or Oreos to a performer ready to disinfect it. "The show's not going forward until I get my snack," she sings. The sequence sums up the nature of the fetuses and their relationship to the outside world and their "daddies" in a much more succinct way than the show's other forays into the absurd.
The central problem with The Appointment is its inability to balance its tonal shifts. The fetuses' hilarious audience interactions lead straight into a misplaced ballad by a Hillsong-esque pastor who promises to be a soldier for the unborn, raising the question, Who is this song for? While The Appointment provides ample opportunity for the band — led by music director, composer, arranger, lyricist, co-librettist, and keyboardist Bechtel — to show off their talents, most of the songs feel flat and unnecessary. The emotional apex comes with "Tuesday Song," a contemplative piece sung by the four women in the waiting room before their abortions; the song is memorable both for its lyrics and the women's performances, but it is almost alone it its impact.
The Appointment is neither ridiculous enough nor dramatic enough for the juxtaposition between the extremes to really resonate. You beg it to lean in further in either direction — and then, near the end, it does, when the fetuses find themselves at a Thanksgiving dinner for no apparent reason. They argue, they eat, they pray for the welfare of the Green Bay Packers, and they arm themselves when something at the table unexpectedly comes to life with a Tiresias-like warning. The scene is not given any subsequent explanation, which makes it all the more delightful — finally, The Appointment has embraced the ridiculousness of its main conceit. If only it had done so from the beginning.
Maybe the humor of The Appointment landed better when blue state audiences could conceive of the show's outlandish statements as outliers: that a fetus can have its own favorite food through the umbilical cord, that they can have a favorite phrase they hear from the people around them, like "It has pockets!" or "I'm gonna need you to fill out this form." Perhaps it was easier to feel in on the joke, to make fun of the people who believe that fetuses can have personal preferences before the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Now, a giant curette and vacuum aspirator feel more like mockery.
This mockery could very well be the point of The Appointment: Men get to sing and dance about planning and regret while women sit and ponder their actions, just like audience members seeking an abortion. Even when things go well, it's still a man's world. Audiences already know these harsh realities, and don't need a singing fetus to teach them anew. If nothing else, the heart that LRS pumps into the waiting room carries us — and the show — forward.