Review: Icebergs

Icebergs is a light and reassuring comedy about deciding whether to have children in a worsening world. Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse has created a fine production for the world premier of playwright Alena Smith’s sit-com script. Audiences will enjoy a classic realistic set, purposeful direction, and good comedic acting.

The production, directed by Randall Arney, benefits from good actors: Jennifer Mudge, Rebecca Henderson, Nate Corddry, Keith Powell, and Lucas Near-Verbrugge. The fourth wall setting designed by Anthony T. Fanning is impeccably realistic, and authentically Silver Lake Los Angeles, I’m told.

Realistic sets have their drawbacks, of course. This one looked like a television sitcom set, which reinforced the sense that the play was indeed written in the sitcom sensibility. The playwright, Alena Smith, is an accomplished television writer, with credits on Showtime and HBO.

The story

The protagonist, an indecisive Abigail, is desperate to find someone to end her indecision and doubt about having a child. She consults both hard science (the internet version) and the occult (a friend’s Tarot deck), she considers the odd experiences and advice of three eccentric friends, and she comes to understand her real want (baby! yes!) just before the final curtain.

Climate change

As a factor in Abigail’s indecision, and as a box office draw for younger audiences, climate change is certainly timely, but while a useful metaphor for human relationships, climate change is not a serious theme in Icebergs. The audience is lectured on the seriousness of climate change in a few set-piece rants that say more about the hysterical Abigail (she throws herself on the couch) than about Earth. Even the visiting paleontologist specializing in the catastrophic Ice Age climate change shrugs his shoulders about impending doom. It is what it is.

Yes, most American couples when contemplating having children probably haven’t thought much about this at all. The moral and practical concerns are probably far stronger in Syria and Afghanistan and Mozambique and Venezuela — add others if you wish.

Career issues

Abigail and her husband Calder are young film industry insiders who approach their career futures with ambitions rather than fears. They are economically comfortable, and so Abigail’s indecision is not complicated by the prospective loss of one income or by the high cost of raising a child.

The moral implications of being a parent are always with us, in theory, but we keep having babies, lots of babies and even more babies. Icebergs would have been a far different, a far less comforting and far more provocative play, had its central couple decided against parenting, even temporarily. Instead, they choose what nearly every couple chooses or falls into, and half of the couple — the husband — never expresses any doubt at all.

Plays are about difficult questions, not answers

I expected one of the five characters to present, almost successfully, the moral case against having children, but the character most against parenting (the paleontologist) speaks against it because he would rather party than parent. His happy ending — each character has one — is abandoning nostalgia for bachelorhood and fully embracing the pleasures of fatherhood, as he facetimes with his toddler in Missouri.

The characters mention warm November weather, extended drought, earthquakes — these phenomena might reinforce a fear of climate change, and thus a fear of having children. But Abigail’s worry over climate change never seems to be serious, just one of those rationalizations that we humans conjure up to explain and cover up an emotion or indecision or fear.

Some structural issues

The script of Icebergs seems to have several elements not fully woven in thematically: we experience a 3.0 earthquake that is soon forgotten, the African-American character monologues about the dangers of being black in America and then that topic is forgotten, and the Tarot-reading Molly readily offers her beloved cat — a symbolic child, as she has no children — to a stranger.

Abigail’s husband is the least quirky character on stage, a stable and supportive (thus boring) husband. Calder is not the protagonist, so his objective, obstacles and choices are less fraught than Abigail’s.

The stakes are low enough for him anyway. His is not a Hobson’s Choice: Calder either allows a celebrity to be cast in his upcoming film, thus dramatically accelerating his career prospects, or he casts his supremely talented but unknown wife Abigail in the lead role, which reduces the box office and buzz, but still advances his career and helps his marriage as well.

You know what he chooses, and you would, too, I hope.

Calder’s impending film is based on a real story with a tragic ending, but his agent reports studio pressure to change to a happy ending. Alena Smith does comes up with a neat solution for Calder, letting his film script — and her Icebergs — have a happy, crowd-pleasing ending: Abigail suggests a happy film ending tweak that isn’t too far from the source material. Problem solved!

Other, more positive opinions

My opinion is not universal, as usual.

Margaret Gray, in The Los Angeles Times, writes that “Randall Arney directs his excellent cast with playful warmth and a keen sensitivity to the generosity and complexity of Smith’s characterizations. The performances feel authentic and lived, and the characters’ rapports convey the richness and surprise of real-life interactions while deepening the play’s themes.”

Reviewing Icebergs for, Shari Barrett is effusive. She writes that “This love letter to L.A. will no doubt enchant audiences in the City of the Angels before it moves to appreciative audiences elsewhere who envy our year-round, warm weather lifestyle.”

During the performance I attended, the frequent references to Los Angeles and the Hollywood film industry seemed designed to draw laughs, and often did. Reference to weather, traffic, the Waze traffic app, and even the mere mention of Glendale drew chuckles. I have seen the same phenomenon in New York, and more than once have wondered if theatre audiences also perform, announcing to nearby people that they get the joke. I’m not so convinced that audiences otside of Los Angeles will be enchanted.


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