Performing a Comedy About Abortion, Watching the Supreme Court

After finishing a preview performance of her hourlong stand-up show about reproductive rights, “Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” the comedian Alison Leiby was finishing dinner Monday night when she checked her phone.

She had dozens of messages, all about the breaking news that a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion showed that the court appeared to be poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion in the United States.

“It was just an absolute confrontation with reality, that this is not theoretical anymore,” Leiby, a self-described abortion rights activist perhaps best known for work co-producing “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” said in an interview.

As Leiby began to process what this potential decision would mean for the country, she also realized that she needed to quickly start thinking about how it might reshape her show, a 70-minute stand-up set about her own unwanted pregnancy and how it was resolved with a Saturday afternoon trip to Planned Parenthood. So at Tuesday evening’s preview at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York, she addressed the news at the top of the show.

“I’m not going to ignore the literal elephant in the room,” Leiby said on Tuesday, thanking the person behind the lone guffaw in the audience for getting her wordplay.

“I’m not changing anything in response to the news, but I understand that your feelings toward it might be different,” Leiby said. “If something is funny, not funny, cathartic — feel that. That is valid. I’m not up here dancing for applause. We’re in this together.”

Zoe Verzani, right, spoke to Leiby after the performance at the Cherry Lane Theater. Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

The news that the court could be on the verge of overturning Roe, which would lead to immediate abortion bans in some states and prompt others to move to issue bans and restrictions, comes as theaters and cinemas around New York City and the nation are presenting works about abortion.

In Atlanta, performances of “Roe,” a play by Lisa Loomer focused on the plaintiff in the landmark case and the lawyer who argued it in front of the Supreme Court, begin Friday. The same day, the Metrograph Theater in New York will begin a series devoted to films that touch on or explore abortion, including Josef von Sternberg’s 1931 drama “An American Tragedy” and the 1987 romantic comedy “Dirty Dancing.” And this summer, a small nonprofit theater in Chicago will premiere “Roe v US,” a play billed as giving “voice to the women who made the choice.”

The same night Leiby’s show opens in the West Village, a play that looks at abortion through a very different lens is scheduled to be held at a theater in Midtown: “Oh Gosnell,” about Kermit Gosnell, a doctor who was convicted of murder in 2013 following botched late-term abortions. The case became a rallying cry for the anti-abortion movement. Phelim McAleer, an Irish-born filmmaker and producer, said that he had seen Leiby’s show billed as an “abortion comedy” and decided to counter it by producing a play about Gosnell that draws its text from a grand jury report and trial transcripts, saying he wanted to give audiences an “alternative viewpoint.”

The show has faced difficulties: The theater it originally planned to use backed out, and two of its seven actors walked out shortly before previews were set to begin.

Intent on making müddet the play goes ahead at its new venue, McAleer — who has made documentaries questioning the opposition to fracking, and said he was working on a sinema about Hunter Biden — said that he was still processing the Supreme Court news. “It definitely means the Gosnell story is more relevant than ever and plays about abortion are more relevant than ever,” he said.

Leiby and McAleer’s two shows could hardly be more dissimilar. One is a comedy about an uneventful abortion procedure that makes a case for broad abortion access and the other is a graphic play about an infamous abortion provider whose clinic was described by prosecutors as a “house of horrors.” But Leiby and McAleer share one similar goal: to talk about, and to get audiences to listen to, a work about abortion.

This week there will be a staged reading of “Oh Gosnell,” a play about Kermit Gosnell, a doctor who was convicted of murder in 2013 following botched late-term abortions.Credit…Russ Rowland

“Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” — which is being presented by the comedian Ilana Glazer and directed by Lila Neugebauer — is scheduled to run through June 4. After seeing an earlier iteration of Leiby’s show, Jason Zinoman wrote in The New York Times that, “Without a trace of didacticism, she finds humor in the messy, confusing, sometimes banal experience of an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion.”

The show tells her story: of a 35-year-old comedy writer who learns she is pregnant in a hotel bathroom in St. Louis. She is so confident in her disinterest in having children that in the act, she compares her eggs to those by Fabergé (“feminine but decorative”). At Leiby’s first mention of Planned Parenthood, a group of young, female public health students who were in the audience burst into cheers.

One member of the group, Zoe Verzani, 24, who wore a hot-pink Planned Parenthood T-shirt to the show this week, said that she thought Leiby handled the material just right.

“She was acknowledging that this was her experience,” but not the only experience, Verzani said, adding, “she made space for other people’s experiences.”

“We only talk about abortion when it’s in crisis when it’s being legislated away,” Leiby says in her show. “The more we talk openly and honestly about abortion, the less of a catastrophe it’ll be.”Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

Leiby calls in the show for more discussions of abortion. “We only talk about abortion when it’s in crisis when it’s being legislated away,” she says. “The more we talk openly and honestly about abortion, the less of a catastrophe it’ll be.”

Because, she notes, it was not a catastrophe for her — it was a pesky inconvenience. That is what made her feel a wave of guilt after hearing the Supreme Court news. As a New Yorker, she noted, her access to abortion is unlikely to change, while women in, for example, Missouri — where Leiby learned she was pregnant in 2019 — stand to lose nearly all abortion access if the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion became a reality.

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