Long 'Expecting Isabel' is a bit short on delivery Theater review

October 14, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Not many playwrights write about medical care. But it's been a prominent subject in both plays that Washington's Arena Stage has produced by Lisa Loomer -- 1995's "The Waiting Room" and the current world premiere of "Expecting Isabel."

Loomer has the rare ability to deal with medical conditions ranging from cancer to infertility with a mixture of comedy and compassion. "Expecting Isabel" is her infertility play, and though it is filled with information, insights, heartbreak and humor, it is hampered by excessive length and an overall sense that it is more about an issue than characters.

Granted, Loomer has chosen an issue with a great deal of built-in emotion, and Arena's excellent cast -- particularly lead actress Ellen Karas -- helps the audience empathize with the central characters.

Miranda (Karas) and Nick (John Ottavino) are a New York couple in their late 30s who decide to have a child. Or rather, he decides and she, somewhat reluctantly, agrees. After a mere three months with no results, they consult a doctor, and their ride on the infertility roller coaster begins.

It's a roller coaster whose ups and downs are physical, emotional and financial. Along the way, Miranda and Nick try methods ranging from artificial insemination to in vitro fertilization. They consult their families and a support group, both of whose members are played by a versatile ensemble of six (Brigid Cleary, Mary Fortuna, Eileen Galindo, Marc Odets, Nick Olcott and Rondi Reed).

The play's most interesting development, however, is the way husband and wife change roles. Ottavino's Nick, so happy, easygoing and enthusiastic at first, becomes skeptical and embittered. Meanwhile, Karas' once-ambivalent Miranda gets so caught up in being what she describes as a "science experiment," Nick angrily accuses her of being addicted.

Loomer's cleverly constructed script includes a great deal of direct audience address and references to its own theatricality. The first act belongs to Miranda, who begins with what is essentially a stand-up comedy routine and ends up walking out on Nick. "Aren't you going to finish telling the story?" he yells after her. "Tell it yourself," she yells back.

And so, Act 2 largely belongs to Ottavino's Nick (whose voice suddenly acquires Italian inflections when he delivers his opening stand-up bit). It is Nick who suggests adoption, putting the couple on a new roller-coaster ride, complete with a lawyer, "adoption facilitator" and a support group of its own (again played by the six-member ensemble).

All of this takes its toll on Nick and Miranda's marriage, and in dramatic terms, the fate of their marriage is what matters most -- not whether they wind up with a baby. With this idea in mind, "Expecting Isabel" would be improved by a less pat ending, as well as considerable cutting. Also, with more than 100 short scenes, the production demands faster-paced direction by Douglas Wager.

Like "The Waiting Room," "Expecting Isabel" has a title that conveys a sense of anticipation. Yet despite the many merits of both Loomer works, each leaves you waiting for a more focused, polished and thoroughly involving play by this highly talented and imaginative playwright.

'Expecting Isabel'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Nov. 22

Tickets: $24-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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