A Frenchman once wrote that we are condemned to be free. Which is to say, perpetually condemned at all times to choose among the innumerable array of possibilities before us – and to deny or to refuse this human condition is itself a choice, albeit a foolish one.
The equivocally-titled “A Pregnant Pause”, a new play written by Meny Beriro and directed by Laurie Rae Waugh at the American Theatre of Actors, is a well-rendered exploration of our human agency and of our bad faith, our failed rejections of our own freedom – and our selfishness that seeks to subsume the freedom of others into our own happiness.
The play is set in a Forest Hills apartment and revolves around the domestic discord of a young couple, Bob Pitchik (Calvin Knie) and Susan Gold (Carla Duval).
Bob is a mercurial twenty-something resolutely dedicated to protracting his arrested development for as long as possible, suffering from both a delusional overestimation of his own abilities and a constitutional failure to bring whatever abilities he does have to any sort of fruition. His undergraduate studies, such as they were, took eight years to complete. Distracted by his similarly childish friends, Bob now struggles to focus on his law studies, which he naively believes will springboard him into a plush position at a Wall Street law firm.
Susan, the sweet, tragic, long-suffering girlfriend, wants nothing so much as Bob’s love and affection. She wants him to be as dedicated to her as she is to him.
And she is pregnant with their child.
She hopes the child will bind Bob to her, jolt him out of the inanity of his own pretensions, awake in him a sense of duty – will, in effect, change who he is.
They argue about their future together, Bob steadfast in his puerile commitment to inconstancy, Susan unable (or unwilling) to accept that her love for Bob can only end badly. She wants him to marry her. He wants to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes.
We all know how that story ends.
Much to the chagrin of Susan, Bob invites his friend Scott (Patrick Robert Kelly) over to the apartment to avoid having to discuss the matter any further. Scott proves a particularly amenable foil for this, being as dissolute in his habits and ambivalent in his emotions as Bob himself is.
Thereupon sounds a knock at the door. But it isn’t Scott. An old man enters, introducing himself as Fred Hallar (Alan Charney). Fred says that he is looking for a Mrs. Ketchener, a former tenant of Bob’s apartment.
Fred insinuates himself into the apartment to the delight of Bob, who sees in Fred’s conversation another opportunity to evade Susan’s remonstrances. Bob is further delighted to hear that Fred once left the love of his life: said Mrs. Ketchener.
Fred, by his telling, has lived a long life and, in having lived, has made choices among an ever-winnowing assortment of possibilities. He brings a foreboding sense of time’s ineluctable passing, of life’s eventual ossification into senescence and resignation. He serves as a warning to the youthful Susan and Bob – namely that to choose is to be human and that the field of possibility is constricted with each subsequent choice. So choose wisely.
But most importantly, Fred is also a hopeful harbinger, proof that even the regretted choice to act is better than the denial of one’s freedom. Stasis, Fred suggests, is death.
Bob, of course, learns the wrong lessons from Fred’s example.
Scott eventually turns up at the apartment, three sheets to the wind. He and Bob abscond to what we can only presume is a bar – but not before Bob insouciantly assures Susan that he will grant her his hand in marriage and a bevy of fat, cherubic children once he is a successful lawyer. Bob and Scott choose to be the bad faith ministers of their own dissipation.
Susan chooses instead to confront her freedom. Fred induces her to choose life. She chooses to leave Bob.
“A Pregnant Pause” is a well-scripted, well-played, and evocative production. Though Knie struggled at times to properly deliver both in timing and in elocution, overall the cast was sincere and earnest in its respective roles. Duval adequately balanced the hysteria of the unrequited lover with a latent independence that set the stage for the play’s satisfying conclusion. Kelly’s rather brief appearance as the inebriated Scott was convincingly played. No small feat that, since those playing a drunk typically seem hell-bent on acting as though they have never seen an actual drunk outside of campy slapstick comedies.
But Charney particularly deserves commendation. He lifted what could otherwise have been a rather dilettantish exercise to a more elevated plane of artistry and poignancy. After all, the trope of the inattentive man and the unfulfilled woman is as old as the world’s first couple. The character of Fred shone a light on the more sordid, impactful aspects of the psychology of the whole affair, and Charney played an excellent Fred. Eccentric, but not exaggeratingly so. Doddering, but in an endearing way that makes his performance all the more melancholy. Charney was, in effect, the glue that held it all together.
One could only wish that the play were slightly longer than the roughly 40 minutes running time, if only to better allow the full flowering of the characters and their relationships to each other. Fred is a nuanced character and the audience is only afforded a fleeting glimpse of the fact.
But perhaps that is what makes the production eminently worth seeing: It leaves you wondering. It evokes all the contradictory emotions a good play should evoke – empathy and alienation; sorrow and joy; reflection and anticipation.
You leave the theater feeling the substantial burden of your own humanity, the burden of your own freedom – and its ultimate levity.