Loomer Comedy About Fertility Good for a Few Laughs

When a play begins with the line, "I am not a happy woman," and the wide-eyed, angst-ridden actress is clad in floral bell-bottoms, you know you're not in for a deconstructed "Anna Karenina."

What you are in for is a fairly decent time at the theater, thanks to "Expecting Isabel," the overly sit-commish, but perfectly serviceable play by Lisa Loomer that bowed at the Mark Taper Forum recently.

This West coast premiere about infertility offers a lot of laughs-and a lot of fine ensemble work-yet the end result feels more like it's shooting, well, blanks. The nervous and occasionally histrionic Miranda (Julie White works extremely hard in this verbose role) is the only child of an alcoholic mother (Brigid Cleary is dead-on in her characterizations, including that of therapist and adoption broker, while her Nancy Marchand-esque take on Miranda's martini-swilling mama is uncanny).

Miranda admits she doesn't have pep-although she does like sex-but has been too caught up in her forlorn existence (she pens salutations for condolence cards) to ever think about having children. Until, that is, her very Italian husband, Nick (another chattering soul, Anthony Crivello purrs along like a fine-tuned Ferrari), declares he wants a child.

Unable to conceive naturally (we see Miranda upside down so the sperm can swim better downstream), the couple then goes to a fertility specialist (in a variety of roles, Fred Applegate scores bulls-eyes with his madcap portrayals, including a foreign cabbie and aloof marriage counselor who veers toward Ned Beatty-land). This stuff then spirals into dizzy support groups, ultimately taking us through a funny, if it weren't so horrific, adoption process that seems to be lifted from a "Law and Order" episode.

Loomer can write up a storm, and Director Douglas C. Wager keeps things moving along the chaos train, but the play never goes too deep. Considering the subject matter, this seems ironic. But then again, if we can't laugh about shooting sperm into cups, fertility drugs like Clomid that turn women into egg-producing machines (wow-on paper this seems more "Brave New World" than the source of guffaws) and caricatured Bronx families (Nick's mother, in the persona of Jane Galloway, has her novenas down pat), what can we laugh at?

It's kind of like Neil Simon on hormones. After all, where is this couple getting the money for these mind-boggling, body-altering treatments?

Nick's a blue-collar sculptor who paints a few murals (but a Guernica knock-off?), and Miranda's been fired after 10 years of bad greetings ("P.S. Your Dog Is Dead!"). Keeping things über-American, they use their Visa cards as they sink further into this nightmare of their own devising. (Yeah: Blame gets bounced around like a ping pong ball and, natch, they split up, only to get back together again.)

As a backdrop to this gynecological mayhem, John Arnone's set offers a quintessential, modern New York, replete with cut-out skyscrapers and blinking neon signs (from Baby Gap to Zabars). The estimable Howell Binkley does not disappoint with his atmospheric lighting. David C. Woolard designed the costumes, including Miranda's very orange wardrobe (perhaps it was geared to match her carrot-top do), and Joe Romano supplies some generic music.

Did somebody say generic? Alas, even with the fine Eileen Galindo doing quadruple duty (her very pregnant Lupe provides a touching moment), and Marc Odets and Mary Fortuna also putting in overtime in multiple roles, "Expecting Isabel" leaves you wanting something more. Then again, a few good yuks are certainly better than no yuks at all.

"Expecting Isabel," at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Avenue, through August 27. Call (213) 628-2772.

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