Review: “Samsara”

VERY SLIGHTLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through March 8
Tickets: $15-$60
Phone: 773-871-3000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

In an interview in the program for the world premiere of “Samsara” at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, playwright Lauren Yee describes herself as someone “who starts the writing process without a specific, clear idea of where I’m going.” Judging by the many inconsistencies and contrivances in this 90-minute piece about a surrogate pregnancy outsourced to India, she ended up that way, too.

“Samsara” initially was part of Victory Garden’s IGNITION Festival of New Plays in 2012 and epitomizes the pitfalls of developing a play around a concept rather than a carefully constructed plot and compelling characters. The most perplexing misstep, and it’s a biggie, is that a crucial detail is contradicted about two-thirds of the way through the story with no explanation as to why. This undermines the basic premise, making it even more disturbing that neither the playwright nor director Seth Bockley seems to have noticed.

At the start, married couple Craig (Joe Dempsey) and Katie (Lori Myers) want to have a baby. Or, as he specifies, she wants to have one, and he wants what she wants. When they learn that a tumor prevents her from carrying a child, they briefly consider adopting, then she decides that surrogacy makes more sense for them. Since it’s very expensive in the United States, and their finances are finite (he’s in construction; she has a grant-writing job with a nonprofit), they send his sperm and her eggs to a clinic in India along with a video of why they should be chosen. They also pick a young woman as the surrogate from another video, and await the day they can bring home their newborn.

So far, so good—at least if you ignore the fact that her tumor is never dealt with, except for an insensitive doctor saying it’s easily taken care of. But then much later we abruptly learn that Craig’s sperm isn’t viable and an anonymous donor’s was used instead. Katie imagines him to be a Frenchman (Jeff Parker) because she’s apparently obsessed with all things French; she even fantasizes lovemaking with a Maurice Chevalier sound-alike from a video she finds of a film she used to watch with her mother. The relevant issue, though, is that turning to a surrogate makes less sense when only the eggs are from the would-be parents.

Compounding the poor plotting are the reasons the very reluctant Craig goes to India alone to be present for the birth and pick up the baby. Financial constraints are mentioned early on, but then it turns out that Katie has a fear of flying and has never been on a plane. The source of her fear is withheld from us until late in the game as if it’s of great significance, but it’s really pretty easy to figure out. More importantly, we wonder why Craig and Katie didn’t seriously consider this factor before coming up with their plan. To make matters worse, Craig keeps urging Katie to get a flight over—even when it’s too late for her to possibly arrive in time.

Indeed, Craig’s behavior throughout is so awkward, erratic, and stupid that it’s impossible to have any sympathy for him—or even to find him believable. When the surrogate Suraiya (Arya Daire), a vegetarian, feels ill after eating two bites of a chicken sandwich at the insistence of her imagined version of her fetus, Amit (Behzad Dabu), Craig rushes off to the drug store and buys every medication there rather than asking her what she needs. This is calculated to get a laugh, and does, but it makes no sense. In another instance of bad judgment, he inexplicably leaves damning evidence of his own racism on a copy of the couple’s application video on his cell phone, and Suraiya sees it.

Similarly, though he’s been too timid to leave the clinic to go sightseeing, Craig convinces Suraiya to join him for a night on the town right before her scheduled delivery, even though the clinic doesn’t allow such outings. I don’t know if this—like his cell phone arguments with Katie—is supposed to show him growing in confidence, but it comes across as irresponsible. In fact, given that the temperature is supposed to be hovering around 100 degrees Farenheit, the nighttime jaunt and Suraiya’s insistence on sitting outside to read, something else she’s not supposed to do, are doubly confounding.

Lee pretty obviously intends much of “Samsara” (Sanscrit for the circle of life) to be a comedy, and the humor, which is mixed in with a lot of relatively subdued socio-political commentary about everything from American cultural insensitivity to the second-class status of women in India, ranges from gentle ribbing to sharp satire. The clinic’s Caucasian doctor (Parker) is so oblivious to the feelings of others and so given to treating his charges like chattel, he should lose his license, if he even has one. The imaginary Frenchman’s quips about Americans—and others—are towards the other end of the spectrum, and the playwright is well-disposed towards Amit’s childlike imperatives and musings.

I think Katie’s desire for a child is supposed to push our emotional buttons, but she’s so self-absorbed and inflexible, the only one I cared about at all is Suraiya. Played by Daire with an endearing combination of intelligence, determination, and tenderness, she rises above the stereotype of a young woman who uses her body as a “Microwave” (the nickname Amit, a.k.a. S***head, gives her) for others so she can earn the money to go to medical school and become the doctor her mother, a nurse, would want her to be.

Bockley stages “Samsara” pretty simply—on a set by Joe Schermoly with lighting by Sarah Hughey, costumes by Samantha C. Jones, and sound by Nick Keenan—but the big climax is a letdown, and it’s followed by a verbal misunderstanding that’s far more annoying than meaningful. In general, I think Lee needs to go back to the writing table and rework the play to iron out the inconsistencies and make Craig and Katie characters who matter to us.