The dead baby joke buried in the text of Rachel Bublitz’s “Funny, Like an Abortion,” making its world premiere at Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre through Nov. 12, doesn’t shock or disgust the way it ordinarily might. In context, it’s one of the milder moments of this in-your-face dark comedy about encroaching totalitarianism directed at a woman’s right to control her own body.
Kicking off Mile Square Theatre’s 20th anniversary season, “Funny, Like an Abortion” is billed as a comedy, and does indeed generate laughs through slapstick and wordplay and deft performances by its two co-stars. But make no mistake: Bublitz has written nothing less than a 90-minute, two-character, single-set manifesto about the injustices and dangers of extreme abortion bans.
Leave the kids at home for this one, and come prepared to be assaulted by a play that’s by turns manic, shrill, gory, extreme … even macabre. By its finale, it stops being theater altogether; its actors break the fourth wall and present information from flash cards listing resources and organizations that fight for reproductive rights and deserve support.
As the play begins, we’re in the messy apartment of Monroe (Joy Donze), a ditzy, 30something blonde who stumbles home laden with party balloons and presents. She teaches pre-schoolers, for which she’s paid very little, we learn. Under the broad direction of Madsie Flynn, Donze seems like a child herself, dressed in dinosaur-print short-shorts and dancing, singing and galumphing around the apartment as she prepares for a party.
The story is set in a dystopian society where abortion has become not only illegal but a capital offense. Just saying the word can lead to arrest and incarceration. What’s worse, Big Brother is virtually everywhere, listening to the most private conversations.
When Monroe’s taller, stodgier and more affluent BFF Jade (Pearl Rhein) arrives, we learn it’s not anyone’s birthday, but an “abortion party.” Poor Monroe is pregnant and doesn’t want a baby, but the law demands it. The gift bags strewn around the apartment — nearly 20 of them — are filled with remedies, potions, objects or strategies that Monroe’s librarian boyfriend has uncovered in a collection of banned books. The plan is to open the bags, one by one, and decide on the best course of action.
Up to that point, it’s all been a bit madcap and fun, with Monroe’s childlike intensity playing off Jade’s stern practicality. (There Is even a subtle dig at how society undervalues teachers when Jade offers to get Monroe a much better-paying job at her place of employment … as a barista.)
Then the women open the first gift bag, and in it find a bottle of Drāno.
While Monroe passes it off as a joke, that gruesome prop sets the tone for the rest of the play. Each bag re-emphasizes the hopelessness of Monroe’s dilemma, serving up over a dozen non-medical means of terminating pregnancy inspired by old wives’ tales, superstition and rumors — methods, it should be noted, that were actually used by women for centuries, and as recently as the era just prior to Roe v. Wade.
Almost all of these “cures” involve risk to the life of the mother and/or offer little chance of working, while the contents of other bags represent impractical, unaffordable dead-end strategies. The point is made over and over and then over again, illustrated with everything from ancient herbs to comic props to, yes, a wire coat hanger (which inspires a “Mommie Dearest” joke that pushes the boundaries of bad taste about as far as they can go).
Funny, like an abortion? Um, yeah. You have been warned. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Donze and Rhein do whatever is called of them, and that’s a lot. The play calls for the women to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience several times, but that’s the least of the show’s detours from tradition. Without spoiling any surprises, the action takes turns both giddy and gruesome. Imagine the Marx Brothers and G.G. Allin mounting a version of “1984,” or Monty Python trying to make kiddie porn funny.
When the truth is unimaginable, turn to the absurd. It’s worked before, when desperate times demanded art make itself heard above the babble. “Funny, Like an Abortion” literally screams its intentions. You may be angered, saddened, inspired or disgusted, but you will not leave this show unmoved.
The Mile Square Theatre has not only been unafraid to tackle topical and controversial issues since Kevin R. Free took over as artistic director last year; he has made it the company’s mission, with productions that have unabashedly addressed topics like institutionalized racism and ethnic identity, directed by women and non-binary individuals. “Funny, Like an Abortion” takes another bold step in that direction. If MST can mount this play in New Jersey, maybe another company can bring it to Alabama or Idaho someday.
Until then, Bublitz offers a chilling harbinger of what might be our own future when Monroe remembers how the anti-abortion movement began slowly, state by state, with each new law becoming more and more extreme and restrictive. “I watched it all happen,” says Monroe, almost amazed that such evil was allowed to flourish. Where have we heard that before?
Mile Square Theatre has ingeniously used its small stage to present single-set plays in the past, but “Funny, Like an Abortion” offers the busiest stage design in memory. Kudos to stage manager Arielle Legere, production manager Jen Price Fick and Emmett Grosland, who handled set and prop design, for keeping track of so many moving parts and mounting a production that painstakingly creates the impression of chaos.
Mile Square Theatre will present “Funny, Like an Abortion” through Nov. 12. Visit milesquaretheatre.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.