‘Refrain,’ a Play About an Unusual Pregnancy, Is Stillborn

refrainCourtesy of The Wild Project

The playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote that “one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” In “Refrain,” a new play at The Wild Project on East Third Street, Chekhov’s gun comes in the form of an unconventional pregnancy.

When Sarah dies in a sudden accident with her infant daughter, her husband Leo (Marc Santa Maria) and sister Angela (Brooke Eddey) decide that the best way to honor her memory is to have a baby together via artificial insemination. So much for memorial services.

Angela is an aspiring painter who stands to benefit financially from this arrangement. By renting out her womb, she earns a free ride to art school courtesy of her brother-in-law, himself a commercial musician. (Hey, it beats taking out a student loan.) Leo’s aims are more pitiful than they are insidious. Through Angela, he hopes to recapture the family that was abruptly snatched from him, even if it means courting a woman who mostly finds him repellent. In a scene that echoes an exchange from “Waiting for Godot,” Angela shoos Leo away during a bout of morning sickness because she can’t stand the smell of his skin. Like Vladimir and Estragon before them, these two are stuck with each other, at least for the duration of Angela’s pregnancy.

“Refrain” unfolds episodically as the pair discuss a familiar litany of theatrical concerns: the nature of authenticity, what it means to be an artist and what it’s like to lose a loved one. Along the way, they also appear to take a vacation to Slovenia — an oddly specific choice for a play that seems disinterested in geography and all but ignores the disparate ethnic backgrounds of its leads (the set, which resembles a Crate and Barrel showroom, looks as much like an apartment in New York as in any major city in the Western world).

It’s during this trip that the pair’s relationship begins to unravel, along with the production itself. Leo cuts himself while walking barefoot and removes a shard of glass the size of a shark’s tooth from his big toe. Shouldn’t Angela take him to an emergency room? And what the hell are they doing in Slovenia anyway? As it turns out, this episode is merely the first in a series of hazily defined dream sequences.

Minor transition issues like these soon give way to more glaring narrative holes. Why, for example, Leo tolerates Angela’s cruelty is never adequately explained, although this may be more a product of Mr. Santa Maria’s performance than the writing of Melisa Tien or the direction of Jessi D. Hill.

Handsome and hulking with a stream of black hair, he has the air of a surfer who just walked off the beaches of Maui. Unfortunately, he demonstrates a disposition to match. Mr. Santa Maria approaches each scene with a kind of stoner’s wonderment, which often distorts the play’s basic tone; he’s eager when he should be inquisitive, petulant when he should be angry.

Ms. Eddey, an Australian actress in the mold of Naomi Watts with an abundance of twitchy energy, does her best to drag the production along, but “Refrain” finally collapses beneath the weight of its subject matter and Mr. Santa Maria’s leaden performance. By the time Angela gives birth to Leo’s child, the gun introduced in the play’s opening scene has long since jammed.

“Refrain” continues through Nov. 19 at the Wild Project, 195 East Third Street, between Avenues A and B; (212) 352-3101, thewildproject.com.