I chased after What Kind of Woman, a new play by Abbe Tanenbaum, for two reasons: It represented itself as concerned with the subject of abortion as confronted by women before Roe v. Wade, an issue very close to my heart as I was one of them, and it was being performed in a tiny townhouse theater, on West 23rd Street, that I can see from my bedroom window. Trust me—if you’re old enough to have been flayed by pre-Roe laws, you’re old enough to appreciate a short commute.
Directed by Kira Simring, artistic director of the Cell Theatre, Tanenbaum’s 85-minute two-hander, set in 2013, features a pair of actors a couple of generations apart: Anne, a young personal organizer and actress, and Nora, a senior citizen and “collector” (we won’t call her a hoarder), who hires Anne to straighten up her tiny Chelsea apartment. The younger woman is played by playwright Tanenbaum; the older, by Virginia Wall Gruenert, who has performed for years and is now executive artistic director of Pittsburgh’s Off the Wall Productions; What Kind of Woman just closed a well-received run at that city’s Carnegie Stage.
Nora, a blowsy, profane, and very funny Jewish woman whose flat overflows with the artsy residue of her years as a counselor at a pre-Roe Chelsea abortion clinic (located, in real life, just blocks from the theater), was the longtime partner of Cicely, who has recently died of breast cancer. A bedroom and bathroom, which we never actually see, hide behind a beaded curtain to the right of the little kitchenette.
In an early scene, Nora gets a call on a wall-mounted landline from her 50-ish, Denver-based son, announcing that he’ll shortly be visiting New York with his pregnant wife and wants to reclaim his childhood teddy bear for the expected infant. It emerges that Nora hasn’t seen David—or the bear—in decades, but she impulsively agrees to have the couple over. Then she panics. Her place is a wreck.
She resolves to hire a personal organizer, whose promotional video starts up on her antediluvian laptop when it’s hit by an object flying from a tumbling shelf. “We want to consciously let stuff go,” says perky Anne in the video, as she pulls sequined underthings from a box. Nora picks up the phone and ends up signing a contract.
The play’s five scenes are interrupted by video clips that speed up, via time-lapse, the purging of decades of detritus from Nora’s cramped living room. The videos provide cover for black-clad stagehands who do the actual clearing, stealthily removing trunks, baskets, and even some furniture. One box contains dozens of pregnancy tests, which Nora bought on sale when a neighbor was trying to get pregnant. She won’t let Anne throw them out. The process invites a discussion of Anne’s career as a fledgling actress, of Nora’s unplanned teenage pregnancy and early marriage to a reliable but boring hometown boy in Erie, Pennsylvania, and of her flight and subsequent life as an activist, protesting on New York’s streets in the early 1970s. Nora tells Anne about her time as a volunteer at the illegal abortion clinic in Chelsea, explaining technical terms and dangerous procedures, demonstrating tactics with kitchen tools and a bagel. A pair of tongs serve as a speculum, a turkey baster as a cannula. This is wildly funny, and also very sad.
Then Anne reveals her fairly conservative views about the need for abortion rights. “At the very least,” she says, “people shouldn’t use it as a get out of jail free card…. Certain kinds of women have abortions, and certain kinds of women don’t.”
Nora’s guard goes up. “All right. What kind of woman has an abortion?”
“I don’t know,” Anne replies. “A careless one.… I am in power. I have empowered myself to take precautions. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.”
“You are the fucking problem,” Nora fumes. “I dedicated my life to make it safe and legal and your privileged arrogance is burning it to the ground.”
The two women reach an impasse. But as they persevere in their shared task, they build a relationship. A few days later, Anne turns up … you guessed it … pregnant. “I thought I wasn’t that kind of woman,” she murmurs. Her despair only deepens their bond.
Nora confesses that she’s afraid to see her son, who is due to arrive the following morning. Rehearsals of various survival tactics ensue, drawn from the diverse experiences of the two women, including the “Yes, and….” improv process in which Anne is trained (an exercise that allows for anything to happen). They celebrate the completion of their formidable organizational task by sharing confidences and swigs from a bottle of Jim Beam. A final projection includes two stark sentences: One in four American women has had an abortion. As of today, 13 states have banned abortion.
In development since 2016, Tanenbaum’s carefully crafted play has been workshopped in Ireland, Iceland, and several American cities, as well as in the digital universe. The 20 heart-rending letters that inspired it, sent to a New York City nonprofit health clinic more than 50 years ago by desperate girls and women from across the country, are on display in the Cell’s upstairs gallery, but in the production itself they are, wisely, merely prompts for an important conversation, made more crucial by last June’s Supreme Court decision upending Roe v. Wade. The letters are projected onto the walls above and alongside the tiny stage, but the action on the floor focuses entirely, and with great success, on the friendship of the two women that grows during the purging process. Subtle, alert, and psychologically astute, What Kind of Woman explores how people, and their minds, grow and change. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.