A popular tactic for those in support of abortion access is emphasizing that when a fetus is aborted, it is more akin to a small clump of cells than anything already living. But The Appointment, Alice Yorke and Lightning Rod Special’s musical about the American abortion debate now running at New York Theater Workshop Next Door, leans in the other direction. The show’s ensemble consists of a group of fetuses, complete with swinging umbilical cords, that couldn’t be more alive.
“Guess what, mommy? I’m as big as an olive,” one coos in a baby voice. The others follow suit, comparing themselves to beans and binder clips, and announcing to their mothers that they can see, hear, and somehow, have teeth to eat steak. They break into raucous song, begging anyone with ears to give them love, attention, and nourishment. They playfully interact with the audience, talking about words and phrases they’re learning to love, including odd ones about credit card statements and debt, and say they’re looking for a daddy, could he be in the audience?
In the midst of these energetic theatrics, we’re taken to the stark reality of a doctor’s office, which we quickly learn is an abortion clinic. A woman named Louise is getting her vitals checked, and then receives an ultrasound. The doctor calmly tells her he’s “required by the state” to make her describe what the ultrasound looks like, to ask if she wants to hear the heartbeat, and to explain at length about “physical risks associated with the procedure.” All throughout this, he clarifies his legal obligations, admitting he finds some of this information “misleading” and sometimes “actually false.”
This simple act of detailing the hoops both medical professionals and people seeking abortions must jump through on a regular basis was surprisingly poignant and harrowing, even (and perhaps especially) without any theatrical flair to dress it up. It was also meaningful that the doctor was generally on these women’s sides; there are enough stories out there where no one is.
For the most part, a strong divide was maintained between the cartoonish, surreal world of the fetuses and the naturalistic doctor’s office. The songs, too, largely only happened during comedic moments such as the one where a group of men serve as musical mouthpieces for propaganda-like stories of women regretting their abortions—legally-required, of course. The tune, a serious Next to Normal-esque musical theater ballad replete with passionate harmonies, is pitch-perfect parody in more ways than one, and includes the shocking yet clever lyric “slaughtered a daughter / sundered a son.”
While The Appointment started strong, it started to lose its way near the halfway point.
For a show taking on such a buzzed-about topic, it did not always seize opportunities to make clear statements about the subject matter. In the latter half, the show’s two black performers discuss being different from the other fetuses, singing a song about how “you’ll have to rip [them] out” of the womb, as they don’t want to be born into an oppressive world. This ultimately felt like a missed opportunity to delve into a complicated subset of the abortion debate, as a notable anti-abortion talking point revolves around it being framed as a threat to the black population, and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger did in fact speak favorably of eugenics.
Then, the show leans even harder into the surreal. The group of fetuses become a family stressfully preparing for a dinner. One fetus lays on the dining table, performing the role of turkey. The others play various characters: the daughter, the mother, the new boyfriend, the old uncle. Suddenly, the turkey comes to life and proclaims menacingly to the table that only one of them has a soul, sending the family into a tizzy. Later, it returns and performs a ballad about whether or not human life matters at all. I kept waiting for this chaotic display to justify its existence in the larger narrative, but never arrived at much clarity.
An extended comedic bit where a fetus clad in a trash bag explores the stage and pounds out a piano tune felt similarly puzzling. The trash bag suit implied he may have been born and thrown away, which could be a statement on why being made to raise a child regardless of circumstance is unwise, but the song he performs is vague, and felt more like a drawn-out joke moment than anything else.
Despite wading a bit too far into sketch comedy territory, the show finds its way back by the end. It eventually circles back to the clinic, where the female patient once again gets her vitals checked. Then, the appointment continues, and everyone quietly witnesses an abortion being staged. It’s brief, unremarkable, and uneventful. In a time where abortion is sensationalized to the point of fiction on a daily basis, this mundanity is exactly what makes this scene so powerful.
Though it’s full of memorable moments, the place where The Appointment truly shines is where the noise is stripped away and it can truly focus on the topic at hand. It wisely never focuses on why these women are getting abortions, and does not reference obvious political figures, choosing instead to center on the visceral absurdity of it all. It may not always make sense, but neither does much of the world anymore.
The Appointmentruns through May 5 at New York Theater Workshop.