theater review

Oh God, A Show About Abortion Could Not Be More Relevant

Photo: Mindy Tucker

Given the climate, given the news, given the situation, Oh God, A Show About Abortion is not the show it might otherwise be. It would be easier to enjoy if it didn’t have the current crisis about Roe vs. Wade pressing on its shoulders; it might be more amusing if the issue didn’t suddenly feel so grave. But all that import weighing it down also gives it substance. Alison Leiby’s comic monologue at the Cherry Lane Theatre, a mild comedy-special-in-search-of-itself, doesn’t have the spark that a solo show like this needs. So it’s handy that Leiby is offering it to an audience already on fire.

“My parents are very supportive. My mom texted me, ‘Kill it tonight!’ and I’m like, ‘I already did, that’s why the show exists.’” That’s Leiby’s first line, and it contains what is to come: insouciance about the Big Topic, her mother as her main foil, and a writer’s rhythm that doesn’t rely too much on her own comic ability to sell. Leiby’s other gigs include being a producer on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, podcasting with Halle Kiefer, and scriptwork for Broad City (Ilana Glazer produces God’s run), and you can almost hear her pitching these jokes in a writers’ room — onstage she has a diffident delivery, tossing out each punchline a little hopefully, as if she hopes we might polish it up and toss it back.

Oh God is an odd title for this. Leiby, apart from the occasional crack about being Jewish, isn’t concerned with issues of religion or faith, and her decision to end an unwanted pregnancy is chill and matter-of-fact. It’s also not actually A Show About Abortion, at least not in the way that rangier projects like What the Constitution Means to Me think their full way around the issue, the legislation, the history, etc. It’s really a self-deprecatory confessional about Leiby’s life and mediated womanhood, peppered with admissions about her own mess-making tendencies (she’s bad with plants), and some heartfelt material on Planned Parenthood helping her deal with one of those messes. She could have just easily called it Dangit: All This and An Abortion Too, but perhaps that was considered insufficiently zeitgeisty.

Her best material is in the longer stories she tells. There’s the abortion itself, which is detailed and not particularly funny, though she tries to get a little mileage out of wearing yoga pants, the unofficial sponsor of terminated pregnancies. (“I know that isn’t what Lululemon intended with their product, but it’s definitely what they are getting used for.”) She gives us a bitter, better tale about another medical procedure: During an X-ray of her lower back, her three male neurosurgeons flipped out about the unknown image on her film … which turned out to be a tampon. A+ doctoring, fellas. And then there’s her mother’s account of her own abortion, pre-Roe, organized by the mob. (“Don’t worry, we do all the Rockettes,” the guy said, when her parents dropped her off in a parking lot, where she was blindfolded and driven off to God-knows-where.) These narratives have ten times the punch of the jokes about Barbie or fertility shaming or a millennial plant store called GRDN. I did like it when she said, “GRDN, we have a PRBLM” about a rotten cactus, but I am an easy mark for anti-plant store digs.

The mom-gets-driven-to-New-Jersey section, short as it is, points to a much more interesting story that Leiby might someday tell. Her framing concept in Oh God is the search for self, and her abortion makes her realize her “self” is a “woman who is not a mother.” That’s not particularly vulnerable or revelatory, though she’s willing to share with us that she shied away from talking about her abortion with her mother because she knew her decision to remain childless gives her mother pain. If she weren’t spending so much time on effortful bits about the names of period-tracking apps (“It’s strange that there are two period trackers named after games: Clue and Life. Instead of Clue and Life, it should be games more logically associated with our periods like Trouble and Sorry”), she could follow this fascinating thread, or her curiosity could lead her to another. The mob did her mother’s abortion? The mob?

But thread-following doesn’t seem possible here, neither in terms of content, nor performance energy. As our interlocutor, Leiby’s a little uncomfortable; she doesn’t create the illusion of “I just thought of this” that the typical ambling stage comic exudes. When she stumbles over a line, she does not improvise or play it off; a longish show (70 minutes) is more to remember than a tight five, and you hear that effort in her voice. When the audience surprises her, though, she shows the sort of wry engagement that would be welcome throughout.

In the section when she goes to Planned Parenthood for her appointment, she describes the intake interview:

This felt like the first time I was really honest with the nurse asking me about my habits.

“How many drinks do you have a week?”

30-40 cocktails.

“You’re in the right place.”

This is not much of a joke, but for some reason, possibly because people there that night had been drinking their feelings, the laughs peppered throughout the room ended with knowing little sighs. “Hahaha mmhhm,” several voices murmured — it was the sound of a group of grimly unhappy women recognizing themselves. Leiby had been smiling at us all evening long, but here her eyes finally lit up. We made her laugh, and Leiby seems very much a woman who would rather be bantering than doing all the talking herself.

The what-a-mess shtick Leiby does, the Liz Lemonesque stuff about being immature and chaotic, needs either a straight man or a crooked one, someone to cast her into relief. The stand-up conventions don’t always work for her, and certainly not for her no-woman-is-an-island message. Her final point, and the one that brought the room to its feet, is about the necessity of sharing, and thus normalizing, stories of our abortions. “The more we talk about it openly and honestly,” she says, “the less of a catastrophe it is.” Her GRDN/PRBLM joke is (almost) already forgotten, but what will stay with me are her chatty, non-joke moments. For instance, it’s socially valuable to hear the details when she talks about having the procedure, which she picks over the two-pills-at-home option because she thinks her bathroom is too small for anything medical. The mildness of her delivery emphasizes how easily her mind and heart accommodated the event. “Anticlimactic,” she calls it, and it certainly sounds that way: They hooked her up to an IV, she woke up in the middle of a sentence, it was over. In these sequences, you can forget the microphone, and the stool, and all the other signs that we’re at a comedy show. Instead Leiby was starting her part of a conversation — and she seemed to be waiting to hear the other side.

Oh God, A Show About Abortion Could Not Be More Relevant