Playwright Matt Williams, who is credited with creating, producing and/or writing such once-popular TV series as Home Improvement, The Cosby Show, and Roseanne, tells us in the program that the idea for this play, currently running at the Cherry Lane, began when he overheard his grown children and their friends at a dinner party having a wide-ranging conversation. They talked about the urgent issues facing the world, which segued into the prospect of having children, and an argument about how their hypothetical children should be raised, which climaxed with a debate about whether it’s even ethical to bring a child into such a world. And that’s how the play begins, more or less, with two couples in their early 30s at a dinner party having a conversation mostly about the various issues involved in raising a child.
But the playwright doesn’t explain in the program why he came up with such an adolescent title, nor why he swerves into an implausible, twisty plot that resembles a comedy in its complications but is only intermittently funny.
In that first scene, Nick the schoolteacher and his wife Rachel the lawyer are drinking too much and having a casual dinner conversation with their friends Frank the banker and his wife Molly the decorator.
The conversation revolves around the choices involved with raising children – none of them have any – with numerous digressions into any number of tangential issues, including the history of the Catholic Church, the pluses and minuses of circumcision, and the poverty in India. In between the occasional one-liners, the dialogue efficiently establishes each character’s dominant trait: Molly, for example, is consistently ditzy and sweet; Frank is reliably right wing: “LGBT,” he scoffs. “QRSTUVW! Every year they add another letter to the list.”
It’s Frank who brings up “an existential question. We are moving toward an apocalyptic world, tribalism, chaos and the utter destruction of the planet because of overpopulation. The only moral choice is to not have children. I mean, really, who wants to bring a child into that kind of world?”
Rachel gives a surprising answer: “We do,” she says. “I’m pregnant.”
That’s when the scene ends.
One can argue that what follows is a dramatization of the issues involved in bringing a child into such a troubled world. One of the characters says at one point: “Giving birth is the ultimate act of defiance.” But the truth is, “Actually, We’re F**ked” is not actually the issue play it pretends to be. It’s too consumed with moving its too-pat characters too tidily through the mathematically plotted story, like avatars on a storyboard:
Frank wants a career but is married to Molly, who wants a baby.
Nick wants a baby but is married to Rachel, who wants a career.
Frank fathers a baby; Nick can’t father a baby. Career-oriented Rachel gets pregnant; baby-oriented Molly has been unable to get pregnant.
I won’t detail the twists, which involve multiple betrayals, none of which the characters seem to take as traumatically as would actual people; the playwright and director John Pasquin are too eager to move the plot along.
The actors do what they can to make their characters credible, even likable — special challenges for Gabriel Sloyer, given Frank’s strident views, and Mairin Lee, given Rachel’s spoiled rich girl vibe; easier for Ben Rappaport as kid-loving health nut Nick, and Keren Lugo, as loving, needy Molly, who says “love” a lot: “I have all this love inside me. Love that I want to share, pour into someone. I have enough love for you, a baby, a house filled with babies.”
I won’t say the story is predictable — it’s too convoluted for that. But the couples are so mismatched that, at least in retrospect, they seemed heading for divorce from the get-go. It’s hard not to wonder how they could have paired up in the first place.
The production is largely designed well, with particular kudos to projection designer Brad Peterson. At the start of each of the seven scene, a phrase is projected all over Robin Vest’s set that sums up the theme. The first scene, when the four are arguing, is entitled “Look It Up” (because they keep on challenging each other to Google the factual claims they are using in their arguments.) There is, however, one distraction in the set: the wall that separates the living room of Nick and Rachel’s apartment from its kitchen. Sometimes it opens when the characters are in the kitchen; sometimes it closes when the characters are in the living room; but it also moves, awkwardly, as the characters go through the door from the kitchen to the living room. One might ask: Why was this wall necessary at all? That might be a metaphor for the play as a whole.
Actually, We’re F**ed
Written by Matt Williams
Directed by John Pasquin
Set design by Robin Vest, lighting design by Paul Miller, costume design by Theresa Squire, sound design by M.L. Dogg, and projection design by Brad Peterson
Cast: Mairin Lee as Rachel, Keren Lugo as Molly, Ben Rappaport as Nick and Gabriel Sloyer as Frank.
Tickets: $65 — $95
Actually, We’re F***ed is schedule to run through April 7.