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Opinion Review: In search of intelligent life and a willing sperm donor

It takes a lot to sustain human life. You need the right temperature, atmosphere and gravity; some water, enough nutrients, not too many volcanoes. And in Don Nguyen’s “Hello, From the Children of Planet Earth,” you also need a willing sperm donor.

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Olivia Oguma plays a humanoid version of a voyager play

Olivia Oguma plays a humanoid version of a voyager


Ambitious and labored, Nguyen’s play, produced by the Playwrights Realm at the Duke on 42nd Street, is set in the misty long ago of 2012.

Directed by Jade King Carroll, it twins Voyager 1’s journey toward interstellar space with a lesbian couple’s attempt to fertilize an egg. Betsy (Kaaron Briscoe), an Amnesty International advocacy director, and Shoshana (Dana Berger), a farm-to-table chef, have maxed out their accounts on IVF, so now they’re trying a budget option, DIY insemination. For reasons that are less than fully explicable, they’ve contacted William (Jeffrey Omura), Betsy’s high school pal, even though the two haven’t talked in 17 years. (Was there a rift? No. Just a plot hole.)

William is a NASA aerospace engineer responsible for the space probe Voyager 1’s firmware, so the play piles most of its metaphors — about spaces and places and heartbeats and homes — onto his narrow, business-casual shoulders. When William thinks that Betsy and Shoshana are inviting him over for sex, he’s interested. When he learns their plans for a hot night lean toward a sterile cup and a stack of porn magazines, he’s less certain. He’d rather focus his care and attention on an object billions of miles away than an ovum nearby.

Nguyen has a fine concept and a genuine sweetness to his writing, despite a few mild gross-out moments, most courtesy of William’s boorish, bro-ish, Cheetos-obsessed office mate, Freddy (Jon Hoche). But sustaining human life onstage? That’s tricky, too. And the performances and dialogue don’t always manage it. Here’s the play’s first line, delivered postcoitally: “So ... um ... I’m sorry I screamed in your vagina.”

The characters feel like rough sketches — a job, a few traits — rather than people and despite a few nicely observed moments, they act in ways that have less to do with human behavior than with Nguyen setting up jokes and set pieces. One of those involves a copy of “Little Woman” put to prurient purpose. (Also, why does everyone wear the same clothes for four months straight?)

Still, the space-age set (designed by Kimie Nishikawa), a riot of geometric furniture, bulbs and LEDs (the lighting is by Nicole Pearce), is a treat. And when the stage realism fails, there are enjoyably surreal interludes, courtesy of a creature called the Farthest Explorer, a humanoid version of Voyager 1, who zooms through space carrying a golden record etched with greetings in dozens of languages as well as whale songs and “Johnny B. Goode.” Played with cheery wonder by the adorable Olivia Oguma, she offers disquisitions on the universe, catastrophe and community. She also delivers the play’s moral: “These humans’ deep and sometimes overzealous desire to connect to others is, well ... super cute.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

ALEXIS SOLOSKI © 2018 The New York Times

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