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The Goldilocks Zone — Passage Theatre at Mill Hill Playhouse

untitled (87)Franny and Andy both want to have a child, but in each of their cases, something is not “just right.” Angle as they might, they just can’t seem to find the Goldilocks Zone, that place in astronomy where all conspires to produce, promote, and support life as we know it from the not-too-hot, not-too cold Goldilocks Zone of our solar system, Earth.

Ian August calls his play “The Goldilocks Zone” and uses the scientific term as a metaphor for several parallel situations that aren’t aligning in perfect harmony in his smart, detailed, thoughtful and topical comedy having its world premiere at Trenton’s Passage Theatre.

Franny is married and has been trying to conceive a child with her husband Ray, who is angry and guilt-ridden that a double epididymal obstruction, a blockage in the vas deferens, prevents him from transmitting viable seed. The couple has seen doctors, gone to classes, and taken every bit of advice that came their way, but the outcome is the same. Love each other though they do, compatible partners in every way, they can’t make a baby together.

Andy is also in a secure relationship. His partner, Matt, is a busy divorce lawyer who listens all day to irate people who want out of their marriages. Included in the infinite squabbles are custody issues. He relates to Andy how people use their children as pawns to spite the unwanted spouse in a way that riddles the child with confusion, He sees his gay, childless life as a source of peace and respite from the vicious tumults he hears about and witnesses incessantly.

As much as Matt appreciates the fact a gay couple has specific decisions to make before they may embark on parenthood, and that accidental conception is precluded, Andy longs for a child. It affects his entire mood and his attitude towards Matt.

Andy is an artist, a painter who is given the luxury to spend all day working on his oils while Matt supports the household by toiling, at unpredictable hours, at a law office.

Andy has not been industrious of late. His lone output has been the figure of a man, one who resembles Matt, in an active position, as if skiing, in the middle of white space. Further examination of the canvas reveals brush strokes that show the Matt is standing in a kind of void, perhaps in the middle of a snowstorm, or even an avalanche. This stark piece is far different from an animated, colorful series of paintings Andy recently created using the planets and the solar system as his inspiration.

Matt is worried that Andy seems anything but inspired. Quiet by nature, Andy seems more private, more irritable, and more intensely contemplative than usual. Matt can’t figure out why, and Andy won’t tell him, but we know it’s because he so avidly wants to be a father.

Matt reports that Andy’s father recently died. The father spouted wisdom and humor from the rear corner table where he sat while Andy worked in a restaurant. Matt and Andy meet when Matt, attracted to Andy but receiving no vibes in return, realizes an older man is the subject of Andy’s focus, and goes to speak with him. Already we know how much Matt wanted to see if he and Andy, in the same orbit, could fit into each other’s life.

Andy revered his dad. He felt nurtured by him. He wants to continue that legacy of affection and benevolence by giving that level of care and self-worth to another child, one of his own. That his child be biological is important to Andy. It’s his father’s genes he wants to endure. He wants to be the dad he had. But how? Matt is resistant to having children, at least as far as Andy can glean since he never broached the subject or initiated a discussion about adoption, surrogacy, or any other plan. The two can have all the sex their libidos desire. Biology says they cannot reproduce.

Two couples, separated by the East River, have a similar dilemma. Franny and Ray have discussed measures they can take. Preferring their child be partially connected to them biologically, they elect to utilize a sperm donor. The trouble is every picture, description, and account Franny sees in the catalogue of donor candidates from an agency make her sneer, “Garbage” and other uncomplimentary words that have to do with excrement. When Ray says Franny is exaggerating, and the prospects can’t be so bad, he peruses the photos and bios and unwittingly echoes Franny’s vocabulary and assessment.

It seems as if child rearing, let alone child bearing is at an impasse. No one the agency suggest can satisfy Franny’s criteria. She can’t even abide pictures. How is she going to react when she comes to another point on which she and Ray insist, actually meeting the donor who will sire their child? Andy is truly at sea. Even if Matt was as eager for children as he is, they would need to arrange with a woman to provide one that would continue Andy’s lineage and present a chance the emerging child might have a disposition or behavioral traits anywhere close to his father’s.

Franny and Andy’s individual commitment to parenthood make them resourceful, The each look for alternative ways to produce a child. Franny needs to find a method for locating a sperm donor that goes beyond the losers she rejects from the catalogues. Andy has the equally astronomical task of finding someone who will agree to be the mother of a child for which he can act as a father.

NealBoxBoth look at various options, and Franny ends up posting a fanciful ad on Craig’s List, an ad Andy sees and answers. The two meet and like each other. Andy has the easygoing charm, shy appeal, and artistic bent Franny would like for her child. Franny is warm and conveys the kind of affection and common sense that gives Andy hope he has found a mother capable of producing his father’s grandchild.

Ray and Matt barely enter the conversation. Franny and Andy are so delighted to find someone who might fulfill each of their individual wishes, the strike a deal on the spot. Franny will announce to Ray she has found an ideal donor. Andy will attempt the more difficult task of acquainting Matt with his longing for a child and the more arduous task of convincing him his arrangement with Franny is for the best of everyone concerned, including Matt.

Once more the Goldilocks Zone goes akilter. By meeting and making a tentative, but firm, agreement behind Ray and Matt’s backs, Franny and Ray have violated a key part of their respective relationships. Neither spouse is exactly pleased at the news. Matt is stunned that Andy has been agitating about having a child. While is happy that Andy has ceased his silence is speaking copiously about fatherhood and all he talked about with Franny, he is concerned about his somewhat naïve partner’s enthusiasm and, being an attorney, has several dozen questions legal and procedural as well as emotional and personal

Ray is no more charmed or relieved as Matt. In fact, he feels betrayed and angry on several counts. For one thing, he has never given up hope that somewhere in New York he and Franny will find a doctor or therapist who can get them past his epididymal crisis can clear the way for their mutual procreation. He agrees the men in the catalogues were unacceptable scum, rogues who sold their seed for a fee as opposed to an altruistic desire to assist women who would otherwise be frustrated in their keenness to be mothers.

Matters get more complicated when Matt broaches the salient legal questions that even Ray has not considered. In posing his purely practical concerns, he brings up one issue that makes Ray lose all patience and erupts in justified rage. Civilization has found its boundary. Any Goldilocks Zone Franny and Andy thought they found has been disturbed to a seemingly irreparable degrees. Even Franny understands the repercussions as Andy’s and her paradise is lurched from its axis and frozen into lifeless oblivion.

I have gone so deeply into August’s plot to show how completely and solidly he thought through all the combinations and permutations inherent in “The Goldilocks Zone.” Rather than use authorial license to overlook a conundrum or gloss over a consequence of Franny and Andy’s haste, August delves into all ramifications and does so in a human, comic matter that makes “The Goldilocks Zone” as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

It is admirably amazing how light August and director Damon Bonetti keep the proceedings of this play. Their easy, direct approach to the material makes it more dramatic, more striking when Ray can no longer contain his anger and sense of exclusion or when Matt coldly dissects all an arrangement with Franny would mean to Andy, not to mention how it would affect their relationship and him. Especially since Andy earns no money and cannot contribute to his child’s welfare, as Franny and Ray might expect.

Of course, Ray, who seems to be the least regarded of August’s quartet, has the most personal and touching point. He wants to know where he fits in if Andy expects to be an active parent, let alone father, to his and Franny’s child. Ray naturally did not envision a third person or another couple that might have some kind of claim to the baby he regards as his, as any man adopting a child or agreeing to surrogate insemination would. Matt and Ray are taken aback when they realize neither Franny nor Andy has considered that Franny and Ray need a fertilizing seed, not an extra person in their lives or that of their child.

August is deft are at bringing all of their complications to light, and Bonetti paces “The Goldilocks Zone” so well that even glitches that came immediately to mind when Franny and Andy had their meeting seem fresh and surprising when they are finally introduced with “The Goldilocks Zone’s” text. It’s gratifying to see how much August is intent on being thorough and shies away from expediency that would make his play less honest and pointed that it so absorbingly is.

“The Goldilocks Zone” breaks forward action at times to give each character the chance to deliver a monologue about how he or she met his or her partner, why and how they fell in love, what each expects from life, and how individual backgrounds influenced their choices in life. These speeches, done in an isolating spotlight and delivered directly to the audience, are well interspersed by August and even more skillfully offset by Bonetti, who makes these sequences seem more like necessary commentary than interruptions to supply exposition that would clutter and stultify August’s general script. Ray, a 7th grade science teacher, introduces the Goldilocks Zone as a concept during one of these monologues. Matt’s rendition of how he plotted to meet Andy was especially warm and moving. It puts Matt into a more amiable glow than he might have achieved without revealing so much of himself presentationally.

“The Goldilocks Zone” moves quickly because it is primarily a comedy with dramatic overtones. Issues August raises give you something to ponder because they go beyond the immediate situation and delve into general considerations of biology, parenthood, adoption, roles of various people responsible for making a child, relationships, ethics, legality, and modern world that accepts surrogacy, gay relationships, and gay child-rearing.

August’s characters contrast with each other. Andy is an innocent, a virtual child himself compared to Franny, Ray, and Matt, all of whom are broader in their intellectual scope and have accomplished something substantive in the world. For Franny, the desire to have a child is profound but considered. She and Ray had planned when her career path, and their lives, would be most conducive to parenthood. Their dilemma is a carefully thought out timetable thwarted by an unexpected biological snafu. For Andy, the desire to have a child is also profound, but it is also impulsive and romantic. In astronomy, as in the famous fairy tale featuring the eponymous character, The Goldilocks Zone denotes a perfect combination of conditions to make life feasible and thriving. It doesn’t promise that life will have an easy time or a smooth path. Andy cannot see that. It’s his romance about being a father like his that drives him and makes him want to dive headlong into any arrangement that will secure him a child. He becomes resolute. He knows his mind. He is not necessarily open to alternative plans suggested by Matt, who, after all, would be affected by Andy being a father.

Franny and Ray are also affected by their encounter with Matt and Andy. It gives them ideas about who they want their child’s biological father to be and how to go about finding him.. August retains some surprises for the straight couple’s story. His ending is the only part of “The Goldilocks Zone” that seems engineered or contrived, but August, Bonetti, and their excellent cast pull it out of the fire and bring their production to a fulfilling end.

August has a good ear for dialogue, and much of “The Goldilocks Zone” is funny. Franny is the most over comedian in that she is at time aware of the wit and purpose of her responses. Andy is the most subtly comic because it is the ingenuousness built into his character that provides his humor.

Andy Phelan brings out all of the sweetness and befuddled nature of Andy’s character. You feel his sincerity, even as he struggles to articulate his ideas and feelings. Andy is a perpetual child in a way. He is far less prepared to make his way in the world as Matt, Franny, and Ray are. Phelan conveys Andy’s artlessness well. He is a natural being, guileless and unsophisticated, even when it comes to his painting. His confusion lends warmth and empathy to “The Goldilocks Zone.” He provides the lack of worldliness that allows August to attack subjects and situations the other characters, including Franny, would be experienced and shrewd enough to avoid. Andy’s desire for a child affects us, and Phelan’s simple motives and inherent innocence disarms us and endows “The Goldilocks Zone” with a charm that might not be present without him.

Dan Domingues is extraordinary as Matt, the character who is the most stable and has the least at stake in the quest to parent a child.

Domingues shows Matt’s intelligence and patience while also conveying the character’s concern for Andy and their relationship. Matt, although not necessarily the oldest character in age, brings the most maturity to “The Goldilocks Zone” situation. His probing into legal and ethical matters brings sense and seriousness to the play. Just as importantly, Domingues lets you Matt’s enjoyment at having a partner, someone he can comes home to and dine with as he sheds the craziness of his clients and their selfishness, and his dedication to Andy,

Of the four strong, attractive performances in “The Goldilocks Zone,” Domingues’s is the most impressive, so much so I hope he begins to appear in more regional productions so his subtle gifts at building a character can be seen more often. Considering how increasingly often Damon Bonetti is directing locally, Domingues could light more stages if Bonetti is as impressed with him as I am.

It’s the core of reality Domingues brought to Matt that made him so effective, None of Bonetti’s cast played only a type, but Domingues built the most complete character. He let you see the dimensions of Matt, especially at a point when this controlled, clear-sighted character is dealing with situations that trouble man and make him more vulnerable.

Jessica DalCanton infuses “The Goldilocks Zone” with energy as Franny. This is a happy, self-actuating woman who may become too enthusiastic about having a child to take each step with care, but who convinces you how important motherhood is to her. Through DalCanton’s portrayal, you can see why Franny might look for shortcuts, take risks, and be impulsive about getting what she wants. DalCanton reveals how Franny’s sharp desire outraces her rational thinking and makes her misjudge how Ray may feel about Andy’s surrogacy and, worse, misunderstand Andy’s expectations from their pact.

DalCanton keeps Franny eternally cheery and hopeful. You want he to get her wish even more than you want Andy to achieve his desire because DalCanton’s Franny strikes you as being so suited to maternity and is so clear about why she waited until age 35 to try to conceive and why she is so particular about the man who will be her baby’s actual father.

DalCanton triggers your empathy in the same way Domingues engenders your regard and respect, and Phelan makes you want to take Andy under parental wing. August, Bonetti, and cast have developed these characters so they intersect and contrast with interest and ease. The performances help give Bonetti’s production the amiability and depth it begets.

Trent Blanton,as Ray, adds to the felicitous mix, He brings a maturity and gravitas different from Domingues’s as Matt. Ray becomes the nice, regular guy who is dedicated to his career as an educator, and who wants to please his wife.

Blanton gives Ray lots of facets. He is a commanding figure that is able to show a measure of unwarranted, but palpable, shame at the incidental condition that prevents him from fathering a child. Ray believes he let Franny down and betrayed his basic manhood by his failure to transmit sufficiently fertile semen. You can read the regret and apology on Blanton’s face every time he and Franny discuss their next move in trying to obtain a child.

Blanton has the luxury to showing the widest range of big emotions. While Domingues’s feelings are subtle and expressed in clear but small ways — a sag in the shoulders, a slower, less confident walk — Blanton gives voice to Ray’s frustration. His reaction when Ray realizes Andy intends to act as an involved father to the child Ray regards as only his and Franny’s is correctly and welcomely explosive. Matt broaches the issue that is the obvious elephant in the room, and when Andy answers in a way that reveals his understanding of the situation, Blanton’s Ray cannot contain his vexation any longer. He must speak out, and he must speak boldly whatever the consequences. Blanton times his outburst perfectly. Just as you naturally turn to Ray, standing slightly upstage right of where Matt and Andy are seated, Blanton unleashes all that has been infuriating Ray and aggravating his relationship with Franny.

Blanton also gets to show Ray’s sadness and his way of being contrite. This actor, who impressed so in Passage’s “The Gun Show,” also directed by Bonetti, displays the panoply of Ray’s moods, responses, and emotions with sensitive authenticity that makes Ray, who can be more distant, as affecting as the other characters.

Matthew R. Campbell’s set captures two New York apartments perfectly. Robin I. Shane chooses excellent clothing for Matt and Ray while making Andy a tad retro and giving Franny an odd ensemble or two.

“The Goldilocks Zone” runs through Sunday, May 31, by Passage Theatre at the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front Street, in Trenton, N.J. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $12 and can be obtained by calling 609-392-0766 or by visiting www.passagetheatre.org.

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