South Coast Repertory's New Play, 'What They Have,' Asks: To Breed or Not to Breed?

“Hold my hand, but do it intellectually”
Henry DiRocco/SCR

To Breed or Not to Breed
That is the question in SCR's What They Have

Two married couples—attractive, smart and politically progressive, but dissatisfied with their lives—are the focus of What They Have, playwright Kate Robin’s sweetly bleak meditation on parenthood, jealousy and compromise. There’s the successful Hollywood duo: Producer Connie (Marin Hinkle) is best-known for making films from best-selling novels; her husband, Jonas (Matt Letscher), is a writer on a popular TV series. The second couple are less wealthy and still striving: Suzanne (Nancy Bell) makes a living as a painter but recognizes that she could paint landscapes and make more money; her husband, Matt (Kevin Rahm), is a musician who aborted his career years before and now teaches guitar lessons.

These diametrical couples have dialectical arguments—compassion vs. selfishness, selling out vs. personal integrity, a hopeful world-view vs. a darker, more cynical one, anger vs. happiness—and as those arguments fly about, fast and furious, I found myself nodding in agreement at Robin’s righteous anger over Bush, ruminations on art and blunt observations on the insidiousness of always being dissatisfied. When one of the women gets pregnant while the other miscarries, the play goes off into an entirely darker direction than I would have anticipated from the initial repartee: The intensity of the baby fever infects them both with a shrill neediness as their men grow increasingly bitter, angry and withdrawn. The end result is that one wonders, “Why this mad desire to procreate?”

Elegantly directed by Chris Fields in a precise staging filled to the brim with perfect choices and a solid cast who are as tight an ensemble as you’re likely to see, SCR’s production couldn’t be better. The serenely hip white scenic design by Christopher Barreca, delicately painted by Lap-Chi Chu’s lighting, provides a neat background for the emotional turmoil occurring onstage.

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I enjoyed the production a great deal. So why the dissatisfaction?

Even the most confrontational people rarely say exactly what’s on their minds, usually editing themselves or talking around the subject. In What They Have, every character speaks boldly of his or her largely black-and-white world, saying what he or she means and meaning what he or she says, all without a tinge of ambiguity. It quickly becomes apparent that the playwright is talking directly to the audience, instead of letting her characters talk to one another (and, by association, to us).

That intellectual hand-holding is fine on network television, saving Ma and Pa Couch Potato from having to think too much about what they’re watching. But Robin is a veteran of the HBO series Six Feet Under, a show in which character motivation and dialogue were reflective of a murkier reality.

Engaging as that conversation with the playwright is, her on-the-nose approach grips the audience but does all the hard work by not allowing us any vagaries along the way—until the masterful tableaux at play’s end—so that we can fill in the blanks ourselves.

It’s disappointing, but not fatal, to a show whose strength of ideas keep coming back to me again and again, days after I’ve seen it. That’s something rare and beautiful in the theater, and like the characters in the play, sometimes you have to stop complaining, shut up and take the good with the bad when it comes your way.

What They Have at South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; ASL-interpreted performance, May 3, 2:30 p.m. Through May 4. $20-$62.

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