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Theatre in Review: Mankind (Playwrights Horizons)

Bobby Moreno, Anson Mount. Photo: Joan Marcus

The main interest offered by Mankind is the spectacle of a playwright painting himself so thoroughly into a corner that, by intermission, it's impossible to see how he can extricate himself. As it happens, he can't. Robert O'Hara is known for his scorched-earth comic approach (Bootycandy) and penchant for plot twists that can turn a play on its head (Barbecue). Mankind, in contrast, is a ponderous, largely laugh-free affair that begins on a mildly inventive revue-sketch note and quickly proceeds to box itself in, leading to a second act that roams far and wide in search of a salient comic point.

The premise: It is a century or two in the future. Women have vanished from the earth, and, through some miracle of evolutionary adaptation -- having something to do with particles in the air -- men have taken on the duties of conception and birth. The fact of a single-sex species leads to speeches like the following: "My father and father divorced when I was 15 and my father took me to go live with his fathers. It was my grandfathers who really raised me. Because my fathers weren't particularly interested. We lived with my grandfathers until I went to college. Then they finally kicked my father out. So, he went back to my father. And they stayed together until my father died...But he always talked about grandchildren...I think he wanted to try being a father again...At the end he kept going on and on about how he wished he'd been a better...father." This speech, delivered relatively early in the proceedings, pretty much exhausts the humorous possibilities in all-male families.

Impending parenthood is the dilemma facing Jason and Mark, casual lovers ("fuckmates" in the script's lexicon) who are horrified to discover that Jason is pregnant. (It's a double shock, since both insist they are on the pill.) This leads to a tense and amusing exchange, even if it overuses the word "dude." ("Dude, I'm pregnant!" "Dude, what do you want to do?") It highlights the excellent chemistry of leading men Bobby Moreno and Anson Mount and the taut way that O'Hara, who also directed, has with a tense one-on-one scene. Then again, this exchange is repeated three more times, in different contexts, to diminishing returns.

Jason's pregnancy is a problem because, in the play's fuzzily conceived vision of the future, abortion is illegal. (Surely, in an all-male society, sexual license would be a fundamental right -- one is reminded of Gloria Steinem's famous comment that "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament" -- but without this obstacle, O'Hara doesn't have a play, so that's that.) Egged on by Mark, Jason tries to arrange a termination on the QT, an effort that lands both men in jail. Things are looking grim until Jason stuns the world by giving birth to a girl. (I'll draw a veil over the delivery scene, which has Moreno attached to what looks like a giant egg cup.) They parlay this momentous event into freedom, wealth, and celebrity -- until the baby dies during a television broadcast.

Taking off from a stray comment of Jason's that the girl (named, for no good reason, Cry-Baby) is "a gift from the goddess," a cult quickly forms, leading to the oddest first-act closer of the season: A congregation enters, distributing golden baby dolls (with bloodied mouths) to men in the audience -- the set, at this point, is also dominated by a giant gilded Cry-Baby -- as everyone is invited to take part in a lengthy prayer to the Goddess (more or less based on the penitential rite at the beginning of the Catholic Mass) that begs for absolution and features the repeated invocation "Ah, Wo-men."

Up to this point, Mankind is something of a head-scratcher, but as Act II unfolds, and the cult grows around the bemused Jason and Mark -- with hundreds of male feminists coming together to seek the return of the goddess -- it seems clear that the target is organized religion, at least as informed by patriarchal power. (The feminists quickly announce plans to kill all unbelievers, all the better to usher in a new era of mercy and love.) But O'Hara's satire is so vague and generalized as to be toothless. Explaining the fetishization of the late Cry-Baby, Jason says, "What do you expect? It's a religion. They need a body and they need it to be dead. And bloody." When Mark, exasperated, insists that the cult is a crock, another character notes, "Everyone knows you cannot make up a religion." That's about as pointed as it gets.

The production coasts on the considerable charisma of its leading men, as Jason and Mark get into and out of trouble, going from jailbirds to deities, ultimately finding themselves under siege by hordes of unwanted spiritual followers. André De Shields, always a pleasure to have around, lends his most unctuous tones to various roles, including a prosecuting attorney and Jason's father, who wants to marry Mark's father in a double wedding with their sons. The rest of the cast works hard, although it's all too typical of the production that the scenes set on a TV talk show ("The Bob and Bob Show") rely too heavily on the actor Ariel Shafir as one of the hosts, delivering his lines in a low, slow drawl, pronouncing every consonant of every word -- a technique that proves to be remarkably unproductive in the humor department.

O'Hara has gotten a sleek production design out of his team, beginning with Clint Ramos' set, which features a turntable surrounded by translucent walls; Jeff Sugg's projections, which fill out each stage look with valuable visual information; and Alex Jainchill's noirish lighting, which is admirably precise. Dede M. Ayite's costumes are plausible extensions of 2017 styles, and her religious garb is equally adept; the sight of Jason and Mark, looking uncomfortable in spangled, flowing robes, is certainly good for a laugh. Lindsay Jones' contributions include a wickedly amusing piece of intro music for The Bob and Bob Show, as well as a variety of effects, including a snippet of Dr. Ruth, explaining why masturbation can be useful in the context of a relationship. (It's really off-topic, but it's fun to hear her voice again.)

But an awful lot of effort has gone into creating a satire without much sting -- O'Hara gets so tangled up in the details of his dystopia that his outrage is rather badly muffled. The sense of a play chasing its own tail is cemented by the final scene, set even farther in the future, which suggests that mankind is evolving in the right direction. Then again, it cues yet another version of the "Dude!" "Dude!" encounter with which it all began. It was only mildly amusing the first time. -- David Barbour

(9 January 2018)

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