The Gene Pool makes a great television show.

Mothers Know Best 

The Gene Pool makes a great television show.

Will and Grace and their purr-fectly catty sidekicks, Jack and Karen, are such exceptionally realized characters partly because they're contained within a television screen. Will and Grace the movie would allow them to go further than they already do (Will would get laid, for example) but likely would tank -- their performances would be glaringly artificial, leaving audiences saying, "But we liked them smaller."

Seeing the show being taped live in the studio, however, with the cameras partially in the way and a loop of canned laughter coming from all sides, would make the story and its storytellers sort of true but patently false. And had the Unicorn Theatre's Cynthia Levin employed the same traits -- the cameras, the laugh track, maybe even commercials during intermission -- it might have elevated The Gene Pool from a moderate success to a marvelous one. That's because Christi Stewart-Brown has written a script that plays like an average network sitcom -- were the nets able to deal with a pair of unapologetic lesbians and the profligate use of the expression "fuckin' A." (What about HBO? HBO wouldn't touch this. It's too normal.)

Mira (Missy Koonce) and Claire (Valerie Mackey) have settled into a suburban idyll that, at first glance, would be the envy of heterosexual couples for blocks around. Mira's a superb homemaker -- cooking and cleaning seems to make her glow -- and Claire is the sturdy provider, a veterinarian who's as adept with horses as kittens. "Honey, I'm home" is the first line of the play, and it's the hook that makes us believe things are rosy. The two have a good life, with ample reasons to call their son, Peter (Greg Jackson), their pride and joy; he's cantankerous because he's seventeen, but he's also not afraid to be affectionate ("I love you right back," he says to one of his moms) and smart.

And he's a virgin. He's about to turn eighteen, and his two moms have rejected his wish for a motorcycle, but they compensate with a box of condoms and their best wishes. He plans to lose his virginity with his girlfriend, Paige (Jessalyn Kincaid), on the anniversary of his birth, an event that occasionally flushes him with angst. Unbelievably, he's never been told the details of his conception -- which mom carried him, or whose sperm booked a room in whose egg. These are questions most six-year-olds would have had answered by now, and for such a nontraditional family to be so withholding just doesn't work.

While Atif Rome's sparse living room set is peppered with dog and cat kitsch, it's the cat coming out of the bag that makes the most noise. A jilted mistress keeps calling and hanging up, and it's Mira's destiny to learn that her partner's affair with a jodhpur-wearing patient has just ended. (Signs of sexual malaise appear earlier -- in one genuinely funny scene, Mira, taking cues from The Total Woman, comes out of the bedroom dressed in Saran Wrap only to be told she's got that wrong too -- and it turns out to be the old song and dance: Claire's been getting it elsewhere.)

Missy Koonce has some wonderful moments freezing out her stage spouse. Her eyebrows seem to work independently as they punctuate her looks of hurt and disbelief. And her gait is one of the most distinct in town: She can float with the delicacy of a fairy and just as quickly stomp out her feelings like a lumberjack. Koonce's Mira is, in fact, so heartily embraced by the audience that Mackey's Claire can't help but be a villain. And it produces a lopsidedness that the play never succeeds in balancing out.

The birthday nears, and it is -- besides a monumental day of sexual awakening -- the point at which Peter can legally search out his sperm donor. In an inspired bit of casting, Damron Russel Armstrong plays the lender, who rebuffs Peter's inquiry at first but is softened by the boy's sincerity. How the donor gets to the family's house is better left a secret, but it does cause pause about what must be Mackey's superhuman strength.

Near the close of the play, when all things uncomfortable are predictably ironed out, the staginess calls for the loud "aaawww" that accompanies TV moments of cute resolve. It's fine when things work out for the family, but it's not particularly moving. Yet the opening-night audience was right in this cast's back pocket, responding with the appropriate laughter and silence in a manner that felt almost preprogrammed.

Jackson, however, deserves everything the audience gives back to the actors. He has been strong in better plays (such as Side Man), but here he takes average material and polishes it into something approaching radiance.

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