The singing fetuses giggle and taunt, adorable and naughty like a gang of baby clowns. Umbilical cords dangle from their bellies, and when the fetuses break into song, they like to hold those cords up like make-believe microphones.
If you wanted to nudge someone’s memory of “The Appointment,” the wild and wily abortion musical that was first seen in New York in 2019, you’d start by mentioning those vividly imagined womb dwellers. In this show by the Philadelphia company Lightning Rod Special (“Underground Railroad Game”), they’re the rowdy, trippy part.
What’s most arresting about “The Appointment,” though — even more now, in its current engagement at WP Theater on the Upper West Side — is the contrasting quiet calm of its realistic scenes set inside a clinic, where a composed, 30-something woman named Louise (Alice Yorke, credited as the show’s lead artist) has come to get an abortion.
She actually has two appointments, as all the patients do: first an ultrasound, during which the doctor is required by law to ask if she wants to hear the fetus’s heartbeat. Then there’s some legally mandated medical misinformation — which he reassuringly debunks on the spot — and a compulsory 24-hour waiting period before she can end her pregnancy. The show follows her all the way through, demystifying the process with a keen straightforwardness. Nothing about Louise’s experience fits a trauma narrative.
That is a major point of this daring, clear-eyed work of political theater, which pits the unambiguous humanity of Louise and the other clinic patients against a sentimental, fever-pitch fantasy of walking, talking fetuses — and briefly of unseen, hypothetical women who forever ruined their lives by aborting their pregnancies. (We hear their supposed voices in the show’s satirical song of female regret, “What Have I Done?,” which is performed by three male characters, channeling the popular idea of abortion as a source of everlasting anguish.)
The creative team writes in a program note that “The Appointment” was “born of rage” at misogyny and paternalism. But in its previous New York outing, it was just possible to not quite pick up on the roiling fury beneath its surface — to come away thinking, perhaps, that it was deftly both-sidesing one of the culture wars’ most ferociously fought arguments.
It would be hard to get that impression now. Directed by Eva Steinmetz from a smartly updated script (the book’s lead writers are Yorke, Steinmetz, Scott R. Sheppard and Alex Bechtel; the music and lyrics are by Bechtel), this new iteration of “The Appointment” is still the farthest thing from a polemic, but it is sharper, neater and more deliberate.
In a run coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion until the Supreme Court struck it down last June, the show lands with more urgency than it used to. In one switched-out lyric from the anthemic “Tuesday Song,” a bracingly self-possessed Louise used to sing, with the other clinic patients, that activists’ screaming about abortion has “nothing to do with me.” It does now.
None of which is to say that “The Appointment,” whose nutso musical numbers are choreographed by Melanie Cotton, is bummer theater. On a set by Oona Curley, with costumes by Rebecca Kanach and lighting by Masha Tsimring, it’s as unhinged as it always was, and as determined as ever to make the audience squirm — like when a long metal hook more than once appears from the wings, menacing the fetuses. By the way, there is also a hose.
Distasteful? Arguably. But is it as unsettling as the ease with which a few of the female fetuses, looking for daddies in an interactive section of the performance, coax some men in the audience into opening their mouths when they should keep them shut? Arguably not. A tip: When they ask you to rate the hotness of one of them on a scale from 1 to 10, remember that she’s meant to be a fetus, not a grown woman — and that a woman is a person. So either way, what are you thinking, rating her?
Through Feb. 4 at WP Theater, Manhattan; wptheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.