THEATER REVIEW: “40 Weeks” at the New York Theatre Workshop

In a far-closer-to-perfect-world than the one we live in, the plot of 40 WEEKS would be:

Molly (Michelle David) and Scott (Ronan Babbitt) meet through their friends Angie (Megan Hart) and Mark (Jorge Cordova), and their shallow have-fun-while-it-lasts attitude toward relationships sweeps both these dedicated singletons into a loving and fulfilling relationship.

Unfortunately, the actual plot is:

Angie meets Mark and they get married, then pregnant. Then Mark falls apart in a pile of self-indulgence and Angie tries to hook up with her old lesbian lover, and all the while they make each other miserable. But their friends get to have some great sex, and when the baby’s born everything is OK!

40 WEEKS is a rom-com about a relationship during pregnancy. Fair enough, and maybe those who’ve tried the “giving birth” thing will take more away from this production than I did. Maybe sympathizing with two Millenial Yuppies would be easier if I’d felt the same lack of surety in a relationship with a kid on the way. But isn’t one point of drama to make the specific universal, and open up new experiences to those who haven’t had them? Instead, we watch the tired cliché of boingourgeois-marries-bohemian as the couple winds through the inevitable arguments that follow. Who will pay for the baby? Who will paint the baby’s room? Will Mark get his book published, or at least make a sale on the subway? And why should the audience care about these feckless whiners? Angie’s unhappy, Mark’s unhappy, and the only two who seem to be pleased with where they are with their partner are Scott and Molly.

Protagonists in a play are supposed to be defined by their change, but I see no evidence of a profound change in Mark, and after watching Angie be disappointed by his false promises so many times I simply don’t believe it’s going to happen. Instead, the most profound journey of change belongs to Scott, who goes from Barney Stinson to Ted Mosby, carefully picking his way through the landmines of a relationship he never meant to get into, and now doesn’t want to be rid of.

David and Babbit are by far the most engaging performers in the production, with Deanna Sidoti’s Kelly coming a sharp third. And thank goodness, because whether he’s lamenting how he hasn’t yet heard back from Pericles Press about his novel (an early, heavy-handed hint which writer Michael Harris Henry turns around later on to give the audience a small surprise) or throwing a temper tantrum at the working, pregnant wife who’s trying to support them both while he pursues his dream when she calls him out on neglecting his promises to her, “protagonist” Mark manages to project his air of magnanimous entitlement and narcissism across every scene he touches. Much of his navel-gazing about his readiness for fatherhood seems childish and offputting; maybe this is the point, and maybe he’s not meant to be a sympathetic character.

Oddly, there’s far more depth in short interactions between other characters than in the part of this two-hour play that involves the two mains. Throwaway lines between Kelly and Scott are full of zing, These two have palpable chemistry as the put-upon but tolerant subordinate and her horny boss, and their relationship actually changes – and grows – over the course of the play as Scott approaches Kelly for support in his burgeoning relationship with Molly. (Yes, the Molly/Scott dynamic could also be said to shift through the action, but since they’re clearly going to hook up and needle each other with good-natured Cary/Hepburn screwball aggression through the play this relationship feels less like growth and more like inevitability.)

Michael Henry Harris is an insightful writer of dialogue who constructs an articulate window into how people treat one another, but I’m not sure that his script really unpicks the complicated domino-game of relationships that weave together to create 40 WEEKS. His supporting characters create a good background for the main couple, but the protagonists seem to make only broad acceptances of their circumstances, and not clear, intentional choices that will bring them closer to a desired goal. That might be life, but is it drama?

Harris’ tagline declares that 40 WEEKS is about “the life you thought your deserved,” except that other than being a famous writer and a great doctor, it’s not clear what they thought they deserved. A daughter? A published book? Come on, kids, you’re young yet. Give yourself time. Even when Angie manages to manipulate a former lover into a sexually compromising situation, she backs off from making the decision to push it to the point of infidelity.

If only Harris’ female lead didn’t show so much less depth and sense of self than the supporting characters. Molly knows what she wants, and has gone to Africa and back looking for it. While not showing much in the way of ambition, we are able to watch the third character, Kelly in action in the workplace. We get the sense – particularly after she dumps her boyfriend of three years after he cheats on her – that she’s the kind of woman Mark actually needs: someone who knows her own mind, who is supportive and offers him proactive solutions, but who then backs off and gets on with her own shit – empowering him to fix his own problems. Lucky for Kelly, she also seems like the kind of no-nonsense lady who would expect a man, not a boy, to be her “better half.”

In the end, I think it’s the superfluous man-child-ness of Mark that makes 40 WEEKS so tedious. I have no belief whatsoever that the actual birth of his child is going to change him, any more than Angie had faith he was actually going to complete his items on his pre-birth checklist. Harris had the opportunity to present us with characters who made much bolder and braver choices, who would actually offer some guidance or points of debate that people going through unplanned pregnancies and the rocky emotional badlands that can surround them, and instead he gave us a cutesy romantic comedy with a few moments of transparent, unconvincing tension. The bright pearls of this piece are the occasional bon mots that provoke the audience’s laughter – but there aren’t enough of them to make me recommend 40 WEEKS.

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