Matthew Lee-Erlbach, the actor-playwright fearless about mixing personal, social and global politics into his plays, adds a jolt of carnality into his latest script, Sex of the Baby, getting its world premiere in an Off-Broadway showcase run Sept. 9-27. Erlbach answered a handful of my questions about the new work that has at its center a same-sex couple in the arts seeking a surrogate mother to deliver them a child.
You might’ve seen Erlbach’s solo play Handbook For An American Revolutionary at the Gym at Judson or Eager to Lose, A Burlesque Farce in Rhyming Verse at Ars Nova. His web series “Roger, The Chicken” is one of my favorite things on the internet. (Yes, it’s Erlbach in a chicken suit navigating modern urban life. Yes, he’s a chicken. What of it?)
Sex of the Baby is billed as “an unflinchingly dark comedy-drama centering on a disaffected New York couple searching for a surrogate but confronted with the collision of raw sexual desire, emotional politics, and the cruel and inelegant reality of love and betrayal.”
Michelle Bossy, associate artistic director of Primary Stages, directs the New York City-set Sex of the Baby at The Access Theater Gallery Space at 380 Broadway. “It takes place in a TriBeCa/Chinatown loft — inside the Access Theater Gallery Space,” the playwright said of the environmental experience. “You walk into the apartment, their home…”
Erlbach told me, “The couple seeking the surrogate want the same thing for different reasons. Michael [played by Korey Jackson] wants it because it’s the next step in fulfilling the next step of the life he’s creating. In other words, family is part of the architecture of his legacy. Daniel [played by Devin Norik], a sculptor — and infertile — wants it because he wants to express a miracle; while he at first believes that can come in the form of creating life, he learns there are other ways to capture this ‘divine spark.’ Ultimately, this play is about the expression of a miracle.”
In addition to Jackson (Far From Heaven at Playwrights Horizons) and Norik (City Of at Playwrights Realm and Unnatural Acts at CSC), the cast includes Marinda Anderson (Far From Heaven at Playwrights Horizons), Clea Aslip (The Way We Get By at Second Stage), Matthew-Lee Erlbach, and Ali Sohaili (Romeo and Juliet at Juilliard). Laura Kim is the stage manager.
The creative team includes set designer Paul Tate dePoo III, lighting designer Zach Blane, costume designer Joseph Blaha and sound designer Emma Wilk.
Erlbach’s plays in recent development include The Doppelgänger at The New Group; King George III at The Exchange/The Orchard Project; and Kevin Lamb at the Vineyard. Check out my earlier piece about Kevin Lamb.
Performances of Sex of the Baby play Wednesdays-Sundays at 8 PM with an added Tuesday performance on Sept. 22. Tickets are available on OvationTix.
Visit sexofthebabytheplay.com for more information.
Here’s my quick chat with Erlbach:
Share a little more about Sex of the Baby‘s characters?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: We meet Daniel, a sculptor, searching for a miracle. Michael, his partner, is a film exec and on the board of Broken, an art gallery, who’s very traditional and strait-laced. Bekah [played by Clea Alsip] is the potential surrogate. She’s a teacher, in love with life, excited to be here, and wanting to be of service. She loves life and Daniel is inspired by that passion.
Their friends, Erick [played by Erlbach] and T’Kia [played by Marinda Anderson], are six months pregnant. Erick is a nurse at Sunrise Senior Living Facility, kind of lost in his life, searching for his purpose. T’Kia is pregnant and looking to save the world.
Hamadi [played by Ali Sohaili] is the provocateur gallery owner of Broken who is a stand-up by night. Where Daniel wants to provoke by nuance and beauty, Hamadi is a disruptor, in the vain of Banksy or Richard Pryor. In his character, I want to draw the distinction the different ways art can be provocative and also shake up the play while doing so — he is the outsider, the “Fool” who disrupts the public masks everyone has put on while also being the only character who can see the truth at the end.
What impulse prompted the play? Who/what did you see first? A need? A setting? A character?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: The first thing I saw was two people desperate to connect, and it happened to be someone searching to find a surrogate and a potential surrogate. Later, I discovered this was a play about what it means to carry life forward — in actual creation of a human and in art.
Share a little bit about how sex and desire derail the goals of the characters?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: It’s not only sex and desire that derail the characters; it’s lack of intimacy and sex that derail the characters. They’re so desperately trying to express themselves to someone else, to be seen for who they are, who they’re trying to be; and everyone is so self-involved — they keep trying to grab for each other, and miss. And there’s quite a bit of sexual combustibility.
How is Sex of the Baby a departure from your other plays?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: This play is a big departure for me in many ways. I tend to focus on the social or political and write outside of myself. Two plays currently in development, The Doppelganger and King George III, deal with resource politics (in Africa) and oppressive politics (in America), respectively. I search for the humanity and the emotional connection inside of those larger issues, as I tend to look at each play I write as a kind of Molotov cocktail to the established order. Sex of the Baby is different because it’s about emotional politics and it’s much more kitchen-sink comedy in that kind of way. That said, I find provocation in other ways in this play.
What responsibility do you feel to provide “hope” in your plays? Or is this a dark ride about destructive impulses?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: It’s not my job to provide hope. That’s not something I can provide. That’s something an individual has to have. I can only tell the truth. That said, I have hope, and my characters have hope. But it is hope inside of often dark or absurd circumstances; really, of our own world. That all said, I do believe it’s my responsibility to offer light. That may sound super pretentious but I promise it’s not!
You’re getting to the age where your friends are starting to have kids. Does this inform the play? Do you have paternal urges?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: Yes. I want to be a dad. I want to have an army of children to work on the remote farm that’ll keep us safe from the rise of the robots.
Do you write with “theme” in mind, or do you write characters, events and situations, letting theme emerge?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I’m so glad you asked that. Theme is everything. I don’t always start there but theme is the argument of the play and without it, the story has no backbone, so it’s very important to me that the theme emerges clearly for me — and then for the audience. I usually start with characters and an event or situation.
Was theatergoing part of your family’s life when you were a child? What was your exposure to theater?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I grew up in Chicago and, yeah, theater was very much a part of my upbringing. My parents took me to a lot of theater. And my aunt took me to comedy shows. So, really, this is all their fault because that was a very big component of my growing up. Really, it was an education in understanding the world through performance, which I think everyone should have. I think it makes us more empathic. Kinder. And collaborative.
Can you share a little about your path to playwriting? You’re also an actor — did playwriting rise out of that, or were you writing plays when you were a kid?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I was painting when I was a kid. I was supposed to be an illustrator/painter. That’s what we all thought when I started placing in competitions and getting scholarships to various art programs and classes. My room at home is still filled with all my stuff. I didn’t start writing plays until college. And they were terrible plays. I didn’t know what I was doing. But when I got to NYC, all the questions I had politically, socially, personally, had to go somewhere and I needed a platform. So I got more serious about writing and began to teach myself structure, character, and really train myself to look at writing as a craft, so I could understand what I was trying to master, what I’ll always be trying to master. I have a long way to go. A friend of mine recently said that there’s a reason the word “wright” is in “playwright” and it’s because it takes a lot of work. She’s very right.
Can you name some plays or playwrights that you love? Or some writers you feel have influenced your work?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I feel like the list is always changing but the staples for me are Odets, Rod Serling, Chekhov, Lynn Nottage, Tracy Letts, Amiri Baraka, Kurt Vonnegut, Shakespeare and Richard Matheson. Also, really into Tarell Alvin McCraney, Amy Herzog, Annie Baker, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Jackie Sibbles Drury. Seeing their stuff on stage has been pretty inspiring.