Sperm and Space Collide in Hello, From the Children of Planet Earth
In Don Nguyen's new play, an aerospace engineer decides to help his lesbian friends conceive a child.
"Write what you know" is one of the more famous dictums when it comes to creating literature. Some years ago, the playwright Don Nguyen was asked by two friends to be their sperm donor. The question triggered a lot of conflicting thoughts in his mind; mostly, he writes, "it suddenly made me aware of this ticking clock counting down the time I had left to start a family."
In Hello, From the Children of Planet Earth, presented at the Duke on 42nd Street by the Playwrights Realm, Nguyen attempts to channel his inner fears into a piece of theater. The main character is William, a 35-year-old aerospace engineer who is asked by his childhood best friend and her partner to father their child. Nguyen may have taken "write what you know" to heart, but little about the play itself resembles an experience anyone has lived.
William (Jeffrey Omura) is a diehard workaholic and it's easy to see why: He's in charge of maintaining the firmware for Voyager 1, the 1977 NASA space probe that, as of 2012, when the play is set, is about to enter interstellar space. When Betsy (Kaaron Briscoe) and her partner Shoshana (Dana Berger) contact him about potentially donating sperm, it's been 17 years since William and Betsy, once inseparable, last spoke. As William warms to the idea of helping out a couple in need (he's their last hope after three miscarriages), he notices that his long-held views of life have started to shift off their expected course.
Nguyen does attempt a bit of parallelism over the course of the play, likening the uncertainty of Betsy and Shoshana's attempts to conceive with William and his man-child colleague Freddy's (Jon Hoche) preparing their spacecraft to travel where no object has gone before. It's poetic dramaturgy, for sure, especially in the back half of the play when bad things happen and conflict finally ensues, but it's also a stretch. Nguyen wants the play to be grounded in life experience, but neither the work itself nor the production earn the serious emotions that he and director Jade King Carroll are trying to elicit. Houston, we have a problem.
For the most part, Nguyen has written a play in the style of a traditional television sitcom, one that relies too heavily on jokes (a lot of them related to poop, and most of them not funny) as it places its two serious protagonists (William and Betsy) and two goofy secondary characters (Shoshana and Freddy) into a larger-than-life circumstance. Carroll's broad direction only hinders the desired realism; all of the performances feel too false to convey the necessary humanity needed in order to make the final scenes work. It's almost as if no one involved with the production has ever met a real version of the people they're depicting.
That actually helps in the case of the mysterious fifth character, called "The Farthest Explorer in the Universe." Played with wide-eyed innocence by Olivia Oguma in weird light-up space drag (Loren Shaw created her costume, while Ari Fulton is the costume designer for the production, with Nicole Pearce designing the constellation-inspired lighting), the "Farthest Explorer" is Nguyen's anthropomorphic portrayal of Voyager 1 itself as she hurtles through the galaxy. Unlike her costars, Oguma is able to create a wholly original performance that is oddly believable and not at odds with actual life. As for the concept itself, the idea of physicalizing a spacecraft as a human persona with feelings is interesting enough to warrant a play of its own, an idea that might have served Nguyen better instead.