Monday, March 4, 2019

176 (2018-2019): Review: HURRICANE DIANE (seen March 2, 2019)

“The Real Bacchae of New Jersey”

Anyone familiar with the landscape of Off Broadway knows that the New York Theatre Workshop is a hothouse of quirky, socially purposeful theatrical flora. It’s latest mildly exotic bloom, sometimes fragrant, sometimes not, is spreading its petals under the title Hurricane Diane

Co-produced with WP Theater, and first seen in 2017 at New Jersey’s Two River Theater, it’s a sporadically amusing, hour and a half, eco-friendly satire by Madeleine George about a visit by the Greek god variously known as Bacchus, Bromius, and Dionysus, to an upper-middle class cul-de-sac in Red Bank, New Jersey. (Dionysus is played by trans actor Becca Blackwell; George calls for “any masculine person who does not identify as masculine.”) 
Becca Blackwell. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In an opening monologue, the curly-haired, redheaded Dionysus—“God of agriculture, wine, and song”—offers the seedpod from which what follows stems: disturbed by how mankind has despoiled the green planet, he is making a comeback during our “early Anthropocene” period, aiming to prevent imminent global catastrophe by turning himself into Diane, a Burlington, Vermont-based, lesbian permaculture gardener. His goal is to start up a cult of modern Bacchae-like followers to save the world from ecological disaster. 

To kick off his project, he’s chosen four ladies living in the same Monmouth County cul-de-sac. The action—performed in a generic, upscale kitchen (perfectly designed by Rachel Hauck) that serves for each household—moves from one house to another. Diane, shedding the god’s Greek tunic for manly gardening clothes, promises to provide each housewife her ideal backyard garden, in the course of which she attempts to seduce them. Her not entirely successful efforts result in a zealous start-up band of environmentally-devoted bacchantes.

First, there’s Carol Fleischer (Mia Barron), an executive with a pharmaceutical company that manufactures “baby-mangling pills.” Compulsively obsessed with clipping photos of the gorgeously designed lawns and gardens in HGTV Magazine, she wants something similar.
Mia Barron. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Diane’s philosophy, though, calls for returning the land to its existence as a primeval forest, which she describes in microcosmic detail, including pawpaw trees, whose “fruits look sort of like big swollen glands.” Even Carol’s precious lawn must go. Carol proves a tougher nut to crack than Diane bargained for so Diane moves on to her somewhat more compliant neighbors.
Michelle Beck, Danielle Skraastad, Mia Barron, Kate Weatherhead. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The neighbors, well-dressed and attractive, include Beth Wann (Kate Weatherhead), whose husband recently left her. She may have to sell her house, her unmowed lawn looks like a prairie, and she dreams of a “fairy garden.”
Kate Weatherhead. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Pam Annunziata (Danielle Skraastad) is the epitome of sexy, Italian-American, suburban overstatement. The garden she desires is an Italian one like that in a mural at Delfini’s, a local eatery.
Danielle Skraasgad. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Finally, there’s Renee Shapiro-Epps (Michelle Beck), an editor at HGTV Magazine, who knows a thing or two about permaculture and wants it for her garden. Renee’s enthusiasm for what Diane’s planted in her mind provides the water causing it blossom.
Becca Blackwell, Michelle Beck. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Much of Hurricane Diane’s humor comes from the tongue-in-cheek depictions of these privileged homeowners when they get together at coffee klatches to commiserate with Beth’s domestic woes, share stories of the unnamed Hurricane Sandy, and chatter about health issues and sex. The latter touches on "gender non-conforming” behavior, as the admittedly non-conforming Renee puts it.

This being a play with a serious message buried in its suburban snark, be prepared as well for significant amounts of environmentally sound, technical discourse, as when Renee tells Diane: “I’ve got the perfect setup for swales and rainwater harvesting out there—that steep grade? . . . And I’m guessing the soil is in decent condition, probably a little acidic, nothing a little wood ash won’t fix.”
Becca Blackwell, Kate Weatherhead. Photo: Joan Marcus.
George’s characters are colorful, mostly well-acted (Blackwell, however, goes from dynamic Dionysus to dull Diane), and one-dimensional. Pam, however, hilariously portrayed by Danielle Skraastad, stands out to striking effect. She offers the funniest and most accurate version of a loud, flashy, Jersey guidette since the days of “Jersey Shore. Her brains, though, match her body, perfectly garbed by Kaye Voyce in outrageous animal prints.
Becca Blackwell, Danielle Skraastad, Kate Weatherhead, Michelle Beck. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Even if you don’t find anything else to chuckle at, Skraastad’s perfect accent, gestures, attitude, and physicality will stir your rictus muscles. Just wait for her description of Delfini’s, making it sound every bit as “DUHLICIOUS” as the polenta they serve there. And the way she offhandedly discusses her marital sex life is comedic genius.
Kate Weatherhead, Danielle Skraastad, Michelle Beck. Photo: Joan Marcus.
With its forays into horticultural fantasy, spouting of gardening theory and terms, mockery of suburban housewifery, ecological purpose, and storm-shrouded bacchanal conclusion, Hurricane Diane sometimes borders on the twee. Keeping it aloft, though, are George’s sprightly dialogue, Leigh Silverman’s (The Lifespan of a Fact) briskly humorous direction, the choreographic contribution of Raja Feather Kelly to a bacchanalian number by the Bengsons, the versatile lighting of Barbara Samuels, and the exceptional sound score (including great storm effects) by Bray Poor.
Michelle Beck, Kate Weatherhead, Danielle Skraastad. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Even when we’ve had it up to here with pawpaw trees, root balls, Moris rubra, serviceberry, comfrey clusters, nettles, sorrel, hognuts, hawkweed, and bladderwort, the production mostly keeps us interested. When its flowers begin to droop, though, there’s always Danielle Skraastad to turn the sunshine on.

New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., NYC
Through March 24