Washington -- You have to admire a playwright who can blend homosexuality, abortion and Wagner's Ring Cycle into a family drama -- one that also includes more than a few laughs.
Twenty-six-year-old Jonathan Tolins does all of that in his chillingly prescient play, "Twilight of the Golds," which is receiving its East Coast premiere at the Kennedy Center before moving on to San Francisco and eventually New York.
Set in the very near future, the play focuses on an expectant couple who discovers, through genetic testing, that their unborn child is going to be a normal, intelligent male who has a high probability of being gay.
The playwright anticipates almost every question and argument -- ethical and scientific -- that the audience might raise about this discovery. He makes the father-to-be a genetic researcher and the prenatal tests experimental. He also includes a note in the program on "The Science of the Play," quoting Time magazine and referring to neurobiologist Dr. Simon LeVay, whose controversial studies of the brain found that the hypothalamus differs in homosexuals and heterosexuals.
Tolins further complicates matters by making the family liberal, Jewish, urban professionals and by giving the wife a homosexual brother, to whom she is very close. More than once, the brother compares this type of genetic research to Nazi philosophy.
The brother, David, provides the primary point of view and is also responsible for the Wagnerian references, which he elucidates in some of the play's scattered monologues as well as in lectures to his family, the Golds. (The title is a pun on the last opera in the cycle.) The essential similarity between his family's story and the Ring Cycle, he explains, is that, like the gods in the operas, the Golds are determining the fate of the world "not with magic and thunderbolts, but in domestic squabbles."
David's lectures and particularly his pivotal second-act debate with his pregnant sister, Suzanne, give the last half of the play a didactic quality, which director Arvin Brown is unable to mitigate and which the playwright characteristically anticipates by having Suzanne criticize David's tendency to lecture. And yet, Tolins is tilling such fascinating new ground that interest never wavers.
The playwright also loads the dice with a heavy-handed ending, and by making Suzanne largely unsympathetic -- though admittedly, it is difficult to tell whether this is due to Jennifer Grey's shallow portrayal or to the fact that Tolins has deliberately created a shallow character. Either way, it's too easy an out.
In contrast, Judith Scarpone exudes warmth and empathy as Suzanne's quintessential -- and sophisticated -- Jewish mother. And, when he tells his son David how he truly feels about having sired a homosexual, actor David Groh is heart-rending.
Surprisingly, the part of Suzanne's husband, Rob -- played by Michael Spound -- is thinly drawn; the excuse here may be that scientists aren't supposed to be emotional, but again, that's too easy.
The burden of the play falls on Raphael Sbarge, who does an acceptable but not luminous job as David, our guide through Tolins' text as well as Wagner's operas. As might be expected, David also offers the play's ultimate apologia. Logic is beside the point, he insists. "When art is at its most outrageous, when it cannot be believed, that is when it most resembles life."
But what gives "Twilight of the Golds" such an eerie edge is that it can be believed. A few years ago a friend of mine took a class in civil rights law.
When the subject of genetic testing came up, one student said, "I'm a lesbian. If my mother had known that, she probably would have aborted me."
"Golderdammerung" may be closer than we think.
What: 'Twilight of the Golds'
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Through Aug. 1
Call: (800) 444-1324