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Review - Inked Baby: Pregnant By Design

While there are laws restricting the tattooing of minors, the unseen infant title character in Christina Anderson's Inked Baby has the unfortunate honor to be indelibly marked even before birth. The play's premiere production at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater is honored with a fine cast and some truly captivating moments provided by both the playwright and director Kate Whoriskey. But once the very human story is firmly established, the plot takes a twist that - while certainly based on realistic situations - abruptly changes the mood of the piece into something akin to sci-fi mystery. The awkward clashing of the two worlds of the play reduces what is no doubt meant to be a pivotal scene into the kind of silliness that, at least on the night I attended, draws loud giggles from a good part of the audience.

But that opening scene is a knockout. Big, blue-collar nice guy Greer (Damon Gupton) takes off his pajama top as he prepares for a quick sexual encounter with his kittenish sister-in-law Lena (Angela Lewis) who nervously reveals herself in sexy black lingerie. They know they have 45 minutes until Greer's wife, Gloria (LaChanze) returns home.

It's not what you think.

After two unsuccessful pregnancies it has become clear that Gloria cannot carry a baby to term. Having spent most of their savings on medical treatments, leaving them unable to afford artificial insemination, the couple has asked Lena to have sex with Greer and give birth to a child who will be raised as theirs. Having been recently laid off, Lena's severance package will pay for medical expenses.

Yes, I know. It sounds like the kind of situation that any playgoer will tell you is going to lead to trouble, or at least to an eighty minute intermissionless drama, but the wonderfully honest and detailed work by Gupton and Lewis make you believe every moment as he fights his sexual attraction for his wife's sister out of loyalty to his spouse (though he knows he must get aroused somehow) and she tries to get him in the mood without feeling disrespectful to the person they both love. The staging of their eventual tryst is surprising, emotionally revealing and seriously hot.

Though not clearly stated, if seems as though Lena got impregnated on the first try, so we don't get a look at the interesting complications that no doubt would arise if the two had to make a series of attempts. But there's plenty of the expected tension as the serious-minded Gloria strictly monitors Lena's health habits and vents frustration over missing the usual experiences of having a baby. Being financially supported by the couple for the nine month use of her body, Lena spends a lot of time shooting the breeze with her animated, Langston Hughes quoting friend Ky (an amusing Nikkole Salter).

Then it gets weird. In a cartoonishly mysterious scene Ky is called to the office of a medical assistant (Nana Mensah) to undergo some nutty procedure. I won't reveal what we eventually find out about why so many people in a certain part of town are being called in for similar examinations, or what physically changes are occurring to them, but this underwritten plot detour is far less interesting than Gloria's feeling of loneliness which drive her into the arms of tattoo artist Odlum (Che Ayende), allowing LaChanze to add more interesting textures to her portrayal.

Because the playwright specifies that all the characters are Black American, there's a strong suggestion that she means to address a certain racially based political and social issue in her companion plot. But her work in Inked Baby is far stronger, and frequently exceptional, when the characters deal with issues that have nothing to do with skin color.

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