Monday, January 8, 2018

137 (2017-2018): Review: MANKIND (seen January 5, 2018)

“He’s Having a Baby”

Playwright Robert O’Hara (Bootycandy, Barbecue) appears to have a lot he wants to say in Mankind, his awkwardly simplistic, dystopian satire now at Playwrights Horizons. Precisely what he wants to say, though, has to be dug out, like your car during our current freeze, from an icebound script. Even under (or perhaps because of) O’Hara’s own direction, it may make you wish to leave your shovel and rush back into the frigid cold well before its two hours conclude.

Anson Mount, Bobby Moreno. Photo: Joan Marcus.
O’Hara’s futuristic fantasy places us 100 years or so in the future when men, so preoccupied with controlling women’s bodies, have legislated the fair sex out of existence. The patriarchy is able to carry on because men can now have babies but must nonetheless live in a world still run according to the laws in place when women existed. (Someone should compare this material to the vaguely similar but vastly superior The Handmaid's Tale.) O’Hara’s program notes declare his inspiration was Douglas Turner Ward’s Day of Absence, about when the white world woke up to discover that all the black people were gone. Mankind, though, is unable to adapt that premise for anything but its initial surprise.

The part of the play about men having babies reminds us that Billy Crystal got pregnant in Rabbit Test (1978); that in Frankenstein’s Baby, a 1990 BBC comedy-drama, someone became the first pregnant man; and, that in Junior (1994), Arnold Schwarzenegger produced a baby bump. And, of course, there’s the story of Thomas Beatie, who actually did give birth to a kid. O’Hara, though, confused as his treatment is, wants to deal with a less benign subject than male pregnancy: abortion.

When two youngish men, Jason (Bobby Moreno) and Mark (Anson Mount), who’ve been having a purely sexual relationship—they call themselves “fuckmates”—discover that Jason’s pregnant, they ponder what to do, ultimately agreeing to “get rid of it.”  However, abortion is illegal in this new world (as, for all its restrictions, it is not today) and Jason’s OB/GYN (David Ryan Smith) rats on Jason and Mark, landing them in jail.
Ariel Shafir, Anson Mount, Bobby Moreno, David Ryan Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When Jason’s baby turns out to be a girl, things begin to go weirdly awry for the patriarchy, especially after the infant, called Cry-Baby, dies during a TV interview hosted by the annoyingly supercilious Bob (Smith) and Bob (Ariel Shafir). The alleged cause: toxic air.
Ariel Shafir, David Ryan Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Almost immediately, Jason and Mark find themselves the nominal, reluctant leaders of a rapidly spreading, powerful religion of “Feminists,” who pray to the late infant, now transmogrified into the She-goddess. (Mankind was written two years ago; ironically, “feminism” was Merriam-Webster’s 2017 word of the year.)  She, whose name is “unpronounceable,” is a latter-day Jesus, represented by a huge, gold statue, its mouth smeared with blood. Tiny doll versions are worshiped by the pious, whose goal is to see a return of “Wo-men” (pronounced “woe-men”), and who say “ah wo-men” instead of “amen.”
Stephen Schnetzer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The World Power Authority, however, which considers the Feminists the world’s most dangerous cult, has other ideas.
Stephen Schnetzer, Bobby Moreno. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The above only hints at the nonsensical developments and the humorless SNL sketch-like treatments the material receives, with its thematic issues lumping abortion in with religion, premarital sex, men’s stupidity, power, greed, climate change, and the necessity of women (as if anyone, even the worst misogynists, ever really doubted it). None, sad to say, is handled with particular resonance.
David Ryan Smith, Bobby Moreno. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It’s all acted in an equally diverse assortment of styles ranging from naturalistic to campy exaggeration, including a prosecuting attorney played by Andre De Shields (who also plays Jason’s father) in a bizarre, triangular, semi-Eraserhead afro, speaking and gesturing like someone from not just another century but another planet.
Bobby Moreno, Anson Mount. Photo: Joan Marcus.
O’Hara occasionally provides an amusing touch, as when Mark and Jason refer to each of their parents in this all-male world as “father,” allowing the context to suggest which of the fathers mentioned is which; we also may guess which "father" we would assume to be the “mother,” a word never spoken. But, in general, the plotting is wobbly, the humor banal, the exposition indistinct, the characters cartoonish, and the situations lacking even the most basic grounding in a reality strong enough to help us suspend our disbelief.
Anson Mount, Bobby Moreno. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mankind’s slick production does little to make things more bearable, despite a set by Clint Ramos that makes good use of a turntable; moderately futuristic costumes by Dede M. Ayite; suitably theatrical lighting by Alex Jainchill; projections, principally of scene titles, by Jeff Sugg; and self-aware, seriocomic music and sounds by Lindsay Jones. 
Andre De Shields, Bobby Moreno, Stephen Schnetzer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Kudos to the earnest cast for keeping straight faces during this dramaturgic farrago, even when one scene requires that they ask the men in the audience to rise and sing from a religious hymn distributed on small cards. Perhaps one-fifth of the men attending the night I went actually took part; thankfully, the actors refrained from asking those of us who hid under our seats or otherwise chose to look every way but theirs to join their brethren. 

On the other hand, a woman in front of me was asked by De Shields to refrain from singing. Obviously, by breaking the fourth wall this way, the play’s insistence on a world without women becomes even more innocuous.

When the play ends and the applause dies down, an actor steps forth to deliver a brief appeal supporting a woman’s right to choose and for theatergoers so inclined to provide a donation to Planned Parenthood as they leave the theatre. Whatever feelings one may have on this hot-button issue, his little speech at least makes clear that O’Hara is indeed lobbying for abortion rights. Just because he wrote a play about it doesn’t mean his intentions always come across. 

O’Hara’s got real talent—I loved Barbecue—but Mankind could have used some Planned Parenthood assistance of its own.


Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 28