‘Babel’ falls short depending on sci-fi tropes

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Anita Holland, Amanda Schoonover, Frank Nardi, Jr. and Bi Jean Ngo

Jacqueline Goldfinger travels a well-trod path in “Babel,” her new play receiving its world premiere at Theatre Exile through March 8. The bisexual, Philly-based playwright imagines a futuristic world in which birth is regulated, genetics are manipulated, and relationships live and die by the whim of scientific advancement.

Sound familiar? Goldfinger — who proved her staggeringly individual artistic voice in works like “The Terrible Girls” and “The Arsonists,” both seen at Philly’s Azuka Theatre — trades here in tropes that have permeated science fiction for more than a century. Nearly every angle she explores has been handled elsewhere.

Goldfinger conjures a world in which expectant couples must have their children “pre-certified” before birth to ensure their cosmic construction will make them fit members of society. Those who don’t meet the grade are relegated to a serving class and exiled to The Villages, the kind of places only spoken of in hushed tones.

Already one can recognize shades of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and its Colonies in this set-up — not to mention the underrated 1997 dystopian film “Gattaca” and any number of young-adult novels that trade in totalitarianism. As a feminist artist, it makes sense that Goldfinger would home in on reproduction as an ultimate metaphor for societal repression, but again, she finds herself in territory that Margaret Atwood (and others) have handled.

One stroke of surprise that infuses the script comes in the form of a giant talking Stork (played by Frank Nardi Jr., costume and all) who haunts the mind of Renee (nonbinary actor Anita Holland), a lesbian who has finally conceived after nearly a decade of trying with her partner, Dani (Amanda Schoonover).

The Stork gives voice to Renee’s fears about impending motherhood and alarm at the society she and Dani helped create. (In Goldfinger’s future, the people willingly embraced reproductive authoritarianism, an interesting idea that is not developed to its full potential.) Of course, even this fantastical element is not what it seems. After an intriguing launch, the true nature of this subplot reveals itself in a way that seems derivative.

The play’s structure is episodic and often hard to follow. It’s rarely evident how time is progressing, or how far into the future we’re supposed to think these events are happening. The mirroring of Renee and Dani’s pregnancy with that of a heterosexual couple, Jamie and Ann (Nardi and Bi Jean Ngo), feels like a leftover from a romantic comedy.

Deborah Block’s production doesn’t bring much coherence to the shaggy material. The design elements — sets by Colin McIlvaine, costumes by Ariel (Liudi) Wang, lighting by Drew Billiau and an intrusive soundscape by Elizabeth Atkinson — are similarly vague.

Among the actors, Schoonover locates a malevolent edge beneath Dani’s chirpy exterior that adds weight to her underwritten character. Nardi’s performance could use some of that same edge, especially once Jamie’s unsurprisingly complicated past is revealed. I don’t envy Nardi having to climb into that Stork costume, but I do wonder why he’s adopted an accent for it that makes him sound like a drag queen with a pack-a-day habit.

Holland — a fine supporting performer in productions at Quintessence Theatre Group, Philadelphia Artists’ Collective and Simpatico Theatre Group — lacks the gravitas to carry the show. Ngo too often defaults to a perplexing archness.

As with Goldfinger’s “Click,” which Simpatico produced locally last year, the playwright presents an impending world shot through with a barely hidden sense of technophobia. It’s hard to fully comprehend what she wants her audience to consider. If it’s that eugenics are dangerous, then she’s picked a position that hardly needs arguing. If it’s that we should fear the future, then the position she’s taking is more reactionary than radical.

For the play’s title, Goldfinger reaches even further back, to the Bible and an unsubtle allusion to the dangers of playing God. Ultimately though, the story told within contains mostly babble.

For tickets and information about “Babel,” visit theatreexile.org.