It’s a solid idea that drives “Babel,” Jacqueline Goldfinger’s 2020 sci-fi drama now playing at Edgewater’s Redtwist Theatre under the direction of Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary. The playwright posits a future where narcissism—the impulse to exist in the world as a constructed, idealized image rather than an actual, embodied self—is no longer merely a common psychological condition, but instead has become universal and compulsory. In this universe, a false perfection is the norm. Those deemed imperfect are thought of as crimes waiting to happen, and are sentenced to a lifetime of constant monitoring and grinding manual labor.
Unfortunately, the execution is less compelling than the premise. A flawed script and histrionic production add up to an experience that’s more emotionally manipulative than thought-provoking.
The plot concerns two couples–one lesbian, the other heterosexual–who wish to have a baby in a society where childbearing is treated as a highly regulated privilege, available only to literally perfect parents. Renee (Monique Marshaun) is in the early days of her pregnancy, earnestly doing her stretching exercises to prove her maternal commitment. Her partner, Dani (Shannon Leigh Webber), a high-flying overachiever, conceals her uptight and domineering nature under a façade of exaggerated, condescending competency and self-control.
The couple is close friends with the somewhat more down-to-earth Ann (Soleil Pérez), Dani’s co-worker, and Jamie (Michael Sherwin), who is supportive but also secretive. Ann is also in the first weeks of pregnancy and anxiously awaits medical “pre-certification” of her baby’s genetic acceptability. The tension is palpable for both couples: if the tests do not go as planned, the mother-to-be will be under intense pressure to terminate the pregnancy and start over–or not.
This out-of-control nanny state intrusiveness is a response to ecological collapse and epidemic levels of violent crime, which are attributed to genetic deficiency. Thoroughly spooked, society has accepted eugenics as the path to a better, or at least viable, future. The problem is that in screening out physical deformity and potential aggression, the system inflicts a deeper violence against the human spirit, fostering a race of robotic conformists apt to say things like, “My life skills rating is in the highest percentile.”
At its best, “Babel” is a harrowing depiction of life in a world stripped of authenticity and critical intellect, one animated by coercive positivity and never-ending scrutiny. Playwright Goldfinger’s dystopia isn’t one of Big Brother terror or “Brave New World”-style industrial joy, but rather a smarmy future—one that seems far from unimaginable—of fetal credentialing, public shaming and rote recitation of cultural clichés, all performed with the phoniest of corporate smiles. The world portrayed here is a hell of good intentions.
At its worst, though, “Babel” is more sermon than play, a congeries of potentially interesting concepts that never come together. At times, the script has real bite, as when Dani archly observes that “Maybe if God did a better job, we wouldn’t have to play Him.” But by the work’s melodramatic conclusion, it seems like a promising first draft in need of sharpening and pruning, starting with the character of the Stork, an “in-mind avatar” (costumed by Kathleen Gardin) who haunts Renee’s dreams. The big, gawky bird shifts the story from semi-realistic science fiction into Saturday morning cartoon, complete with improbable plot twists and animal friends.
The four actors give heartfelt, high-intensity performances; Webber in particular turns the Jekyll-Hyde character of Dani into someone both frightening and pitiful. And director Carrasco-Prestinary skillfully manages the actors’ movement and blocking across the tiny, bare Redtwist space, marching them off the stage in straight, right-angled lines, visually underscoring the militaristic quality of the characters’ rigidly controlled and emotionally stunted lives.
However, the action starts with the dial already set high, and it has nowhere to go except hysteria. At a certain point in this ninety-five-minute work, presented without intermission, one realizes that every scene is a full-throttle interpersonal crisis, giving the actors little chance to relax, breathe and fully inhabit their roles. Life simply isn’t like that, even in the future, and the dramatic excess strains our credulity, not to mention our endurance. Eventually, it begins to seem that the one thing that cannot be eugenically bred out of existence is overacting.
The play’s point—that human beings should not be conceived of as machine parts, manufactured to fit socially imposed standards—is an essential one, especially in a bureaucratic, high-tech culture such as ours. (Such movies as “Gattaca” and “The Giver” cover similar ground.) What’s needed is a lighter, more subtle touch, both in script and production, in order to draw us into the play’s bright, safe, superficially attractive but ultimately soul-killing world.
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 Bryn Mawr, (773)728-7529, RedtwistTheatre.org, $40 with discounts available. Through April 30.