It is hard to figure out just what playwright Winnie Holzman is up to in Choice: is this a supernatural sit-com?
Choice by Winnie Holzman. Directed by Sheryl Kaller. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, through November 15.
By Bill Marx
In the Huntington Theatre Company’s program for its world premiere production of Choice, playwright Winnie Holzman writes that she “longed to write a play that would make people want to have a conversation after they saw it.” Well, she succeeded in doing that, but I am not sure it will be the kind of provocative post mortem she had in mind. At the end of Choice I couldn’t help but look up at the heavens and ask: What in the world did I just see?
It is damn hard to figure out just what Holzman, who wrote the musical Wicked with Stephen Schwartz, is up to here: A supernatural sit-com?; A politically correct abortion-themed ghost story?; A breezy meditation, from the perspective of the grand bourgeoisie, on fear of aging, death, and the empty nest syndrome? The problem is that no matter which option you choose you end up with the same big fat serving of hooey—or, as my mother would say, a whole lot of hoo-ha.
The set-up is plenty weird: Vanity Fair writer Zipporah “Zippy” Zunder usually covers the glitzy doings of celebrities, but she has cottoned onto A Really Big Story: a Hollywood movie producer has become part of a bizarro cult that believes that the souls of aborted fetuses transmigrate into other bodies. This California gal has found a young woman whom she thinks is the reincarnation of her aborted fetus. Zippy is set to write an exposé of the foolishness for the magazine, a savage take down that would no doubt please her gracefully aging husband, Clark Plumly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who is hard of hearing (cue deaf jokes), and her sassy best friend Erica (cue snippy one-liners). Meanwhile, misfit college grad daughter Zoe is content to sleep most of the day and chat about her various psycho-sexual problems when awake (cue attempted suicide jokes).
Choice’s dramatic revelation (sort of) is that, partly encouraged by the spooky stuff happening around the house (chewing sounds in the kitchen late at night, a spectral cat on the loose), Zippy begins to believe that there may be something to this mystical notion of aborted souls finding new homes. In fact, Hunter Rush, the mysterious assistant she hires to help her research the story (Get me a download of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, pronto!) could be … well, years before Zippy had an abortion, and Hunter is the right age … and they do seem to have some sort of strange connection … and Zoe is turned on by him … whoa!
I have felt for a while that this is the perfect time for a powerful update of Rachel Crothers’s Susan and God. A member of the liberal upper middle class changes allegiances after he or she finds God: the smug secularists around them become targets for their principled outrage. The unbelievers, stuck in a collective fog of docile complicity, will be helpless—they have no souls to save. Choice gets at the deep emptiness in the lives of Zippy, Clark, and their friends. But Holzman wants to have it both ways — a sure sign of dramatic cowardice. Zippy may have her intuitions about the Great Beyond, but she still passionately believes that abortion should be legal and affordable … nothing here to ruffle any left-wing feathers … she is just asking tough (if off-the-wall) questions. No ideological transformation; no radical protest against The Way Things Are. Worse, a heavy-handed bit of cornball theatrical hocus-pocus suggests that the fetus (?) spirits are listening, perhaps even swinging into action. Be afraid, be very afraid …
But who are these sprites? This is one of those plays about the transcendent that doesn’t dare mention any specific creed: Pagan? Christian? Jewish? Muslim? All of the above? Only God knows. Because of my Jewish background, I prefer to see the migrating souls in Choice as dybbuks—malicious little devils who love making fools of human beings. And have they played a nasty prank on Holzman! They whispered in her ear that she had to make sure that Zippy’s quest for metaphysical enlightenment was paved with plenty of easy laughs, so besides hard-of-hearing Clark (though he is miraculously healed in the second act in order to provide loving advice) and odious zinger machine Erica, we are given an early lover of Zippy’s who has had a stroke. Not only is this character saddled with freakish language issues, but he is given an Austrian accent that would embarrass Colonel Klink. Laughs at the expense of a stroke victim with a paralyzed arm? What religion would condone guffawing at that? And then there is the zany (to-the-max) Russian beautician who supplies bikini wax japes.
The cast members survive the ordeal, though they never make any of the show convincing, either as uggah-buggah sit-com or Cutting Edge Issue play. Frankly, Choice holds your attention because you are never quite sure what is going to happen next—will we get a seance with the soul of a defunct fetus? (Alas, no.) Nice to see veteran actor Munson Hicks as Clark, though his superannuated writer comes off as more than a little smarmy. Connie Ray can’t make the sharp-tongued Erica any less unpleasantly sharkish, while Madeline Wise’s Zoe is a thinned-out TV-ized stereotype of aimless adolescence. Ken Cheeseman is stuck playing a couple of goofball male punchlines—to his credit, he does his best to maintain flickers of humane dignity as the laugh-a-minute stroke victim. Raviv Ullman makes for a mundane Hunter. Johanna Day, as Zippy, looks more than a little befuddled throughout, a bit lost in the turbulent seas of ersatz-spirituality. Is Zippy supposed to be taking this guff seriously? Does she really believe she is haunted? Could it be that this middle-aged woman has been driven mad? Holzman would like you to believe it is a divine frenzy. But I think it is the dybbuks, and they have, with this head-scratcher of a production, taken over the Huntington Theatre Company—lock, stock, and barrel.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007, he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.