‘Sperm Donor Wanted’ review: And baby makes five?

"Sperm Donor Wanted (or, The Unnamed Baby Play)" runs through April 28.
“Sperm Donor Wanted (or, The Unnamed Baby Play)” runs through April 28.
Mikhail Lipyanskiy

Haley Rice, director of “Sperm Donor Wanted (or, The Unnamed Baby Play),” is one heck of a risk-taker — and bit of a miracle worker. Somehow, along with the creative team at Theatre 4 the People, she managed to stage a deeply affecting production in the miniscule, 40-seat Studio at the Chain Theatre, normally reserved for readings and showcases.

The four-person psychodrama, recounting a lesbian couple’s thorny arrangement with a gay male couple to help them conceive a child, has been stripped down to its barest essentials. There is no set, projections, or music to speak of. In fact, there’s technically no stage or proper backstage for that matter. The principal design feature is a row of multicolored lights suspended from above that works overtime to signify changes in physical spaces, time periods, or moods. Joshua Rose is the inventive scenic and lighting designer.

The thing is, the only way such a bare-bones approach can succeed is if the play is expertly written and performed, which is largely the case here. Playwright T.J. Young has drawn from his own personal experience to craft a compelling, bittersweet tale of fidelity, love, and overcoming odds.

The narrative framework of the piece is surprisingly sophisticated. The action begins with the foursome addressing the audience directly, attempting to reconstruct the rocky sequence of events. The bulk of the story is told in flashback, with each character sporadically inserting commentary about lessons learned and chances missed. Throughout the proceedings, dialogue overlaps, as do time frames. It’s not always clear if the moment actually occurred or if it’s an analysis of what took place. 

Not that it matters. For this is as much a memory play as a cautionary tale. And memories play tricks sometimes. The piece serves as a therapy session of sorts, providing catharsis for the couples.

We meet Lisa (Brianna Cala) and Bex (Sophia Grasso), who are married, raising a son from a previous relationship, and desperately wish to have a child together. So they post an ad on Craigslist and sift through the crazies until they hit upon Charles (David J. Baldwin) and Aaron (Javere Green), who appears to be the alter ego of the playwright. At their first meeting, at a dive diner, the two pairs instantly click.  

"Sperm Donor Wanted (or, The Unnamed Baby Play)"
Javere Green and David J. Baldwin in “Sperm Donor Wanted (or, The Unnamed Baby Play).”Mikhail Lipyanskiy

The ink is barely dry on the notarized contract, however, when the scheme begins to unravel. Their humanity, in all its messy glory, mucks up the business transaction. The men are not fully satisfied to play the role of mere “guncles” with no legal parental rights. The women, both white, decide they do not have the fortitude to be mothers to a mixed-race child, which pushes Aaron (who is Black) to the sidelines. Charles, whose dreams of being a father had previously been shattered, is afraid of losing yet another chance for a baby. 

During the course of the 2-hour drama, we learn the complicated, keenly personal backstory of each character. When critical boundaries are crossed, involving a rather nasty bit of deception and gnawing guilt, the entire arrangement threatens to implode. Once the little one is born, can forgiveness soon follow?

To mitigate the strife, there are dashes of levity, especially in the sex-positive scenes. During their first donation, the over-anxious Charles needs help to fill the cup with a specimen, and Aaron, er, lends him a hand. Immediately after insemination, Lisa urges Bex to give her an orgasm, lying on her back, legs splayed in the air. This tactic is known to supercharge the fertilization process.

I was so taken with the performances of Cala and Grasso that at intermission I said to my theater companion that the women had extraordinary chemistry and came across as a real-life couple. Turns out they are indeed together offstage as well. The program states that they are fiancées living a “coastal dream life” on Cape Cod, and that for Cala, Grasso is the “love of her life.” 

“Sperm Donor Wanted” is about more than the daunting challenges that queer families must overcome to have a child. It’s about allowing yourself to be vulnerable, risking untold hardship, but also, offering a chance for utmost happiness. 

“Sperm Donor Wanted (or, The Unnamed Baby Play)” | Theater 4 the People | The Studio at Chain Theatre | 312 W. 36th St., 4th floor | $35 | Through April 28 | theatre4thepeople.org | 2 hrs. with 1 intermission