L-R Drake Simpson, Ivy Castle, Mischa Hutchings and Andrew Love. Photo credit: Adam Baker.
Written by: Abby Koenig
Directed by: Jacey Little
Company: Horse Head Theatre
Run Dates: Saturday, Sunday & Monday, July 12 – 28, 2014
Eighty thousand dollars to adopt a Chinese baby, sixty thousand for a surrogate or twenty thousand for a medical treatment that has only a slight chance of creating a successful pregnancy. These are the choices Milly and Tim face in their desperate attempt to get pregnant in Abby Koenig’s new show, Spaghetti Code. Directed by Jacey Little, this dark comedy (which to my mind was successfully more of a dramedy) examines the agony of failing to get pregnant and the often insane measures couples will go to in their attempts to conceive.
Milly (an emotionally resplendent Ivy Castle) has tried everything from ovulation monitoring to warming her uterus via yoga to spending hours on pregnancy chat rooms hoping for the one magic piece of advice that will solve her reproductive challenges. Her science-geek, quirky husband Tim (played with terrific nuance and comedic ease by Drake Simpson) posits that maybe she’s simply suffering from Spaghetti Code – a type of computer code that should be correct but isn’t. You think only one teeny line in the code is off but really it’s the whole thing that’s a mess. Trust me, this comes off better in person. Tim’s biological clock may not be ticking with Milly’s ferocity, but his love and support is strongly evident and tenderly constructed. All this guy wants out of life is to make his wife happy. Which is why he steals her chart and takes it to his best friend/Milly’s high school ex, Phil, a top-tier fertility doctor who we later learn still holds a torch for Milly.
A quick insert here. The play begins wordlessly in the couple’s living room where Milly falls asleep on the couch and Tim walks off with the chart. Little then makes the very jarring directorial decision to break from the play and allow a Horse Head Theatre rep to come on stage and address the audience about such things as cell phone silencing and company back-patting. This removal from the narrative felt tremendously indulgent and ill-timed, leaving us wondering what the intrusion was really for. Thankfully, Little takes back the reins for the remainder of the show and cleverly navigates a difficult stage bifurcated by a huge post that divides the set up into two distinct parts – the couple’s living room and Phil’s office.
But back to Phil (a disappointingly wooden Andrew Love), who tells Tim that Milly’s chances aren’t good, who in turn goes home and tells Milly the bad news. Furious that Tim has shared their troubles (“it’s easier to hide it if no one really knows”) Milly begins to hatch a plan. Unable to afford adoption, surrogacy or event the iffy fertility treatments, Milly calls upon her sexually aggressive, seemingly carefree, pretty and single best friend, Stacy (a confidently nimble Mischa Hutchings) to do the kind of favour that most wives would consider their worst nightmare – sleep with her husband, get pregnant, have the baby and give it to them.
To Koenig’s credit, what could have been a ridiculous plot twist lands swimmingly due to smart writing that doesn’t take the easy comedic road. This is no “Hall Pass” Part Two. Koenig’s characters believably embrace and struggle with the sex/pregnancy decision before, during and after Stacy agrees to do it with wonderfully amusing results. Little’s direction of the sex scene further develops the bittersweetness of the situation by switching back and forth between Stacy and Tim’s awkward encounter (“I don’t want to kiss you”, says Tim. “That would feel like cheating”) to Milly cooling her heels in Phil’s office starting to question if she’s really ok with all of this. We watch and laugh but it’s the near surface discomfort and the audience’s ability to see that all is not going to be peachy that keeps us engaged.
At just over one hour, the first half of the play feels a bit long from a moment by moment standpoint even if in total it’s a nice set up for what’s to come after a short intermission. Little moves her cast into the dead middle space around the post and more interestingly into the audience for a baby shower scene that comprises much of the final Act. Once again Koenig gives us comedy to take us through the pain of unraveling. Milly’s jealousies and confusion bubbles to the surface and spills out in all directions, Tim loose lips himself into creepy contradiction, Stacy plays the martyr but is stung by the realization of what she is missing and Phil takes his lust to a problematic level. Koenig allows the comedy to take a back seat here as she lifts the veil and shows us just how broken her characters really are. It’s a beautifully conceived and performed scene that takes the show up a notch despite some surprisingly cliché lines. When Milly and Phil finally have it out, Milly declares, “I am a wife and will be a mother. That’s all I need”. It’s a shame after such subtly intriguing dialogue that hackneyed lines such as these slip into the mix. It’s as if after resisting all the trappings a story like this suffers, Koenig just couldn’t help herself anymore.
But to my mind, any mild failings fall away due to Koenig’s bravely ambiguous ending to the play. No spoilers here, but I will give a hearty bravo for not tying this intelligently funny, emotional and uncomfortable story up into a pretty hermetically sealed bow at its conclusion. Instead Koenig let’s the narrative be messy, just like the subject matter and it made the distinction between a play I would have breezily liked to one that I respect.
For those trying to conceive, pregnant or past pregnant – While I hope you won’t relate to the crazy circumstances the play examines, no doubt you will empathize with many of the issues faced and laugh in camaraderie. Which is not to say that you won’t also be uncomfortable along the way. In fact, maybe a lot. But then wouldn’t it be oh so trite to have a shiny happy infertility play? SEE IT
For those of us without kids by choice or other happy circumstances – A whole play about infertility may sound like torture. I know whenever I go out with my breeding friends and they start in on what doctor they are using and the latest pre natal vitamins my eyes cloud over and I start ordering large glasses of wine. But regardless where you are on the baby continuum, this show appeals. On the surface it’s about fertility, but scratch a little and you’ll find lots to chew on about relationships, our ability to deal with jealousy and the strings we pull with those we care about for our own selfish reasons. Plus it’s funny. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Dark humour must be in your wheelhouse for you to enjoy this one. And then if you’re good with that there is also the possibility that the inconclusive ending will throw you. But if you are open-minded you’ll be treated to some great performances, many laughs and a script that takes you places you weren’t expecting. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – As with all new works, this show could benefit from a little breathing room to settle and get tweaked. Not much, however. Yes some of the dialogue needs to smarten up and there is the odd dropped thread (why is Milly the only character that doesn’t seem to have a job?). But the minimal failings are greatly overshadowed by some superlative performances, intelligent comedic writing that doesn’t shy away from pain and many instances of splendid direction. You’ll want to say you saw it when. SEE IT