First Nighter: Matthew-Lee Erlbach's 'Sex of the Baby,' Phil Blechman's 'The Black Book'

09/13/2015 06:25 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2016

Although Matthew-Lee Erlbach appears to have written myriad plays and tele-whatevers, I've only seen his one-man Handbook for an American Revolutionary. That was enough for me to be eager to see the next available work from him, which turns out to be Sex of the Baby, at Access, a Dragon-Man with a Suitcase production.

The first scene -- in which sculptor Daniel (Devin Norik), one half of a mixed-race gay couple, interviews surrogate-mother candidate Bekah (Clea Alsip) -- was so amusing as well as intriguing in terms of the issues potentially at play that I felt assured Erlbach had the goods.

Further assurance came with the second of the play's 90-minute intermission-less scenes, all of which take place in the Access loft space, the playing area of which Joseph S. Blaha has turned into an enticing lower Manhattan loft apartment.

In this one Daniel and movie-mogul partner Michael (Korey Jackson), who's slated to be the sperm donor -- "Who's milk is going to be in the shake?" Bekah has already asked -- are hosting best pals and another mixed-race couple, Erick (Erlbach) and T'Kia (Marinda Anderson), who are already expecting. Erlbach has impressively caught the tenor of young Manhattanites gabbing about their lives, and Erlbach as actor and the other three play the sequence with such natural polish that I was even more certain I was in sure hands.

Then came scenes three, four and five (the scenes are titled "Fertilization," "Implantation," "Gestation," "Hormonal Changes" and "Birth Defects"), and along with them came Erlbach's big letdown. Erlbach decides it's high time to be dramatic--or, more to the point, melodramatic -- and starts filling his work with twists that strain credulity mightily.

Suddenly, Daniel, who from the get-go seemed gay as a pink hat, falls for Bekah, and though he announced to her earlier that his low motility precluded him from pouring milk into the Bekah shake, he impregnates her. In subsequent revelations erupting during the three final scenes, Erlbach has it that Daniel must do some fancy manipulation to keep Michael from learning what's transpired between him and Bekah and that the seemingly happy Erick and T'Kia are barely hanging on to their union and that Erick's real crush is.

But why go on about something with such a vague purpose -- unless it's meant to be a screed on contemporary selfishness among millennial privileged millennials? Adroit as the actors are, Erlbach certainly among them -- and Michelle Bossy's direction is adroit, for the most part -- playwright Erlbach's introducing bits of sitcom and then high histrionics and then a wild-eyed neighbor (Ali Sohaili) in what becomes an annoying mishmash is irreversibly off-putting. It's the kind of off-putting that has a reviewer thinking twice when the next Erlbach work comes along.

The Black Book, at ATA after a 2012 Araca Group run, takes place on a large chessboard realized by Ann Beyersdorfer. Seen from the moment audience members enter the small auditorium, it immediately suggests that dramatist Phil Blechman, who also directs, is about to make a point of life's being a game of chess.

Yes, the old, dreary saw. And if that's not enough to sink a theater lover's heart even before the action kicks in, out comes a character listed in the program as C. C. (billed in one place as Anto Pereira, as Antonieta Pereira in another). She's garbed in a straitjacket, the long sleeves of which hang loose. It instantly becomes clear she has the use of her arms in order to carry about, and often lovingly embrace, the available outsized pawns. She does so intermittently throughout the play.

In a program note, we're informed that Blechman began The Black Book when a Syracuse undergraduate in response to a classmate's suicide, which goes a long way to explaining why his play takes place on a fictional campus and exclusively involves students and teachers, with the exception of the institutionalized C. C.

It doesn't explain why what occurs is so utterly pretentious, with C. C. shuffling around po-faced and a suicidal poet and C. C.'s brother Colin Archer (David Siciliano) not only menacing teachers and other students -- including blonde Nicole (Haley Dean) for whom he has eyes -- but also haranguing the audience, the members perhaps intended to be sitting in for other campus denizens.

At one point, stentorian Archer, who's been bounding up and down the raked auditorium steps and causing a whole lotta shakin', steps to the edge of the stage and declares, "I could say anything right now, and you'd listen to it." Yes, we would but not without thinking, "I'm only listening because I can't see any graceful way to leave." He does this in addition to reading aloud a (not good) poem he's written that's been inserted in the programs for ticket buyers to have as their own.

As sound designer Christopher Marc repeats ominous stings throughout, it's difficult for onlookers to determine what's going on with English teacher Arthur Chase (Gabe Templin), his pal (and possible criminal) Axel Cooper (Sean Borderes), psychology teacher Riley Andrews (Catie Humphreys), Nicole's boyfriend (Joe Reece) and school psychologist Julie Edwards (Margy Love).

As The Book Black -- haranguer Colin keeps a black book before he gives it, I think, to Nicole -- heads towards an end and an actual chess game is played, a puzzled patron begins getting the idea that a metaphorical chess game has been carried out by the figures, a game in which one of them is caught at having done something dire in the past that affected sweet little Nicole. But who can say for sure? I can't. Nor have I any interest in trying.

From time to time sound supplier Marc also pipes in a male voice sing-songing the phrase "I am slowly going crazy." Watching The Black Book, I, too, was going crazy -- and not so slowly.