The first hour of Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation concludes with a revolving montage of creative acts: writing, painting, sewing, lovemaking. It seems like a great ending, summarizing the play’s themes in one concise sequence of images.
Except that the play, presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company in all its glorious messiness and two-hour, 30-minute run time, has a second act. It features the further adventures of a set of matter-of-factly sexually fluid, mostly well-meaning characters, all of them African American and living in or around San Francisco. Their relationships are imperfect, and their stories intersect, in both the past and the present, in ways we can generally predict well before the characters themselves.
Commissioned by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, How to Catch Creation is a co-production with Baltimore Center Stage, culled from the 2017 Kilroys’ List of under-produced plays by women, trans playwrights, and writers with other intersections of race, gender identity, and class. PTC has committed to producing one play from the Kilroys each season.
Anderson’s credits are impressive (the Public Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, Playwrights Horizons), and she is interim head of playwriting at Brown University, a leading source of theatrical talent. Yet even with a strong ensemble and energetic direction by Nataki Garrett, How to Catch Creation seems unfinished. It cries out for compression and smart dramaturgical help to answer some of the questions it raises.
The nub of the play — its seed, according to Anderson — is the longing of Griffin (Lindsay Smiling), wrongfully incarcerated for a quarter century but now a free man, to have a child. He is 47, apparently straight (his sexuality is never disclosed), financially comfortable, attractive, self-educated, witty, and even a feminist. He lives in a palatial apartment in a city in which both straight men and real estate are highly valued. Yet he can’t think of any alternative apart from surrogacy or adoption.
Griffin’s best friend and longtime advocate is Tami (Stephanie Weeks), a lesbian painter and art school administrator whose taste in partners has led her down some dark paths. Weeks’ stylish performance juices the action. She has chemistry, albeit of different sorts, with Griffin and with a young computer tech, Riley (Shayna Small, also appealing). Riley is involved with Stokes (Jonathan Bangs), an aspiring portraitist; it’s her advocacy for him that unexpectedly connects her to Tami. See, everyone really does mean well.
There’s one more couple — Natalie (Shauna Miles), a seamstress, and G.K. Marche (Tiffani Barbour), a novelist — whose relationship is clearly headed for trouble. If you haven’t read the program, you may be slow to realize that most of their scenes are taking place in the 1960s. (The typewriter is something of a tip-off.) G.K., supposedly a terrific prose stylist, has the play’s worst line: “How can you and I raise a child in a space of negotiation?”
Jason Sherwood’s turntable set features a representation of the Golden Gate Bridge, a projected sky of changing colors, and furniture indicating a variety of locations, all moodily lit by Xavier Pierce. Sound designer and composer Curtis Craig’s percussive, jazzy music is worthy of note, as are Ivania Stack’s costumes (especially elegant and eye-catching for Tami). But a sleek production can’t paper over the playwright’s stumbles.