India's unregulated, billion-dollar child surrogacy business is booming. The country has some 1,200 assisted reproductive technology clinics, which lure perhaps 100,000 women to rent their wombs to foreigners. As the standard marketing pitch goes, the fees these impoverished women earn can change their lives. But often they're cheated out of money they're promised, then denied medical care for postpartum complications. Hoping for a way out of poverty, they often end up more hopelessly mired in it.
The exploitative horrors of the Indian surrogacy trade get barely a whisper in Lauren Yee's snappy, lightweight new comedy Samsara, given a relentlessly entertaining premiere under Seth Bockley's direction. But Yee spends a lot of time concerned about whether using an Indian surrogate can heal the troubled marriage of likable Americans.
Craig and Katie, the childless couple at the center of this tenuous comedy, pay an Indian surrogacy agency $20,000, about a third of which goes to surrogate Suraiya. She has a mean aunt, a dream of becoming a doctor, and little else worth Yee's attention. When she's almost ready to deliver, Craig flies to India alone, whimpering that he'll miss Katie terribly. Given what Suraiya's likely going through, it should be cause for minor friction.
Yet by the climax of these 90 blinkered minutes, it's become the defining crisis of the play (by contrast, Suraiya's fate after her disastrous delivery gets hardly a mention). For Craig, Katie's unwillingness to "really be here" is a mammoth transgression, and Yee treats Katie's absence as emblematic of some deep dysfunction both individual and sociological (even though Yee provides ample justification for Katie's decision: the couple's financial straits and Katie's well-justified terror of flying).
So why does Katie's absence become a crisis? For the same reason most every crisis arises in this play: because it's convenient for the playwright. When it's time for a bit of trouble—Katie confronting Craig's inadequacy as a husband, Craig freaking out about the reality of surrogacy, Suraiya questioning her role—Yee injects it without context or development. And just as quickly, it can vanish: one moment Craig can't face Suraiya, the next he wants to take her out on the town. Certainly human behavior can be contradictory, but Yee can't create a suitably complex reality to make human behavior credible.
That's largely because, like so many contemporary playwrights, she places fantasy, whimsy, and self-conscious theatricality above fundamental cogency—or political reality. She gives Katie an imaginary Frenchman sidekick who encourages her to unleash her passions, and she turns Suraiya's fetus into an impetuous, wisely naive child who begs Suraiya to let him never be born. It's cute and occasionally poignant, but it rarely illuminates anything surprising or insightful. And its assault on internal logic is decisive.
Worse, all the whimsy obscures the distressing political and cultural issues surrounding the Indian surrogacy business. While obvious, finger-pointing moments of racism and cultural imperialism arise, the play's final image makes clear what really matters: Craig and Katie are going to be OK.