At a minimum, “Choice’’ proves that playwright Winnie Holzman does not shrink from a challenge, in either subject matter or style.
Audiences at her intriguing but uneven new play, now receiving its world premiere in a well-acted production at Huntington Theatre Company, may need a similarly intrepid spirit, because “Choice’’ is a circuitous journey through some tricky terrain.
Holzman is best known for creating “My So-Called Life,’’ a short-lived but very influential mid-’90s TV series that was one of the smartest and truest dramatizations of adolescence ever to make it to our screens. She also wrote the book for a little musical called “Wicked’’ that you might possibly have heard of.
In the seriocomic “Choice,’’ directed by Sheryl Kaller, Holzman ventures into the most polarizing topic of our times, exploring the reverberations in a middle-age journalist’s life from her abortion decades earlier. Though clearly written from a prochoice perspective, Holzman’s play argues that the choices we make — of all kinds — should not go unexamined.
The playwright mashes up the present and the past, adding a few meta touches along the way, spicing her script with tart one-liners and astute social observations but not always managing to finesse the balance between drama and comedy. She has given her protagonist a name that is too cute by half, Zipporah “Zippy’’ Zunder, portrayed by the estimable Johanna Day. The actress, who has previously done strong work at the Huntington in “Good People’’ and “God of Carnage,’’ does a fine job conveying Zippy’s inner turmoil.
When the play opens, a few hiccups have entered the journalist’s apparently well-ordered existence. (Designed by James Noone, her huge, light-filled kitchen, tricked out with gleaming pots and pans and pristine white cabinets, suggests a Nancy Meyers film is about to happen.)
Zippy’s hard-of-hearing husband Clark (Munson Hicks), who is more than two decades older and dozes off in the middle of a post-dinner conversation with friends, has begun to talk about “a time when I’m not here anymore.’’ Her college-graduate daughter Zoe (Madeline Wise, just terrific) seems adrift, even on the question of her sexuality. Zoe explains that she’s gay, but admits “that’s largely theoretical, at this point, and there’s a buttload of guys I find seriously disarming, so — I’m probably bisexual, since I repel both genders equally. But that implies there are only two genders, which is a whole, like — and I should probably just — pick something to call myself. For like Internet dating purposes. But — it’s hard!’’
Zippy has begun hearing chewing noises from her kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, courtesy of a mysterious cat who has made its way in through the doggy door and proceeded to stare at her “like I owed it money’’ when she threw a broom at it.
She is working on a magazine profile of a female movie producer who belongs to a movement called “Children Lost and Found.’’ Adherents believe that it is possible to reconnect with, as Zippy puts it, “the souls of their aborted children,’’ in the reincarnated form of someone born nine months and 49 days after the date when the abortions took place. The journalist describes the movement as a “mass delusion’’; her best friend Erica (Connie Ray, funny and fierce throughout) calls it “this long-lost fetus crap.’’
But as Zippy goes deeper into the assignment, unresolved feelings about her own abortion are churned up. While staunchly defending a woman’s right to choose, she wishes that back then she had dealt more forthrightly with her own experience, made “some acknowledgment that something — that something — that it’s not nothing.’’ The over-eager personal assistant she’s just hired, named Hunter (Raviv Ullman), is 27, and it was 27 years ago that she had an abortion. Coincidence, right? Zippy doesn’t seem so sure, and starts incorporating her experience into the magazine story. Could it be that Hunter is manipulating her?
She meets for lunch with Mark (Ken Cheeseman), the man who got her pregnant all those years ago, to discuss why their relationship didn’t work out. Holzman mostly plays the scene for laughs, however (Mark has had a stroke and now speaks in an Austrian accent), which is a misstep.
It is Zippy’s increasingly charged exchanges with Erica that serve as the dramatic fulcrum of “Choice.’’ Their friendship is genuinely in jeopardy; Erica grows furious at the writer for, in her view, giving aid and comfort to anti-abortion forces by airing her qualms in the magazine article. She spells out the wider context for Zippy: “Gag rules! Waiting periods! Personhood amendments! Planned Parenthood!’’ Zippy holds her ground, insisting that when it comes to her long-ago abortion, “I have to have the right to — ask this question!’’
Among the strengths of “Choice’’ is that it sees both sides of the questions it raises.
Play by Winnie Holzman. Directed by Sheryl Kaller. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion,
Boston Center for the Arts, through Nov. 15. Tickets
start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org