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Theatre in Review: Hurricane Diane (New York Theatre Workshop/WP Theater)

Danielle Skraastad. Photo: Joan Marcus

The playwright Madeleine George apparently subscribes to the old saw about capturing more flies with honey than with vinegar, at least if Hurricane Diane, now whipping up gales of hilarity at New York Theatre Workshop, is any indication. At a time when so many of her colleagues have transformed themselves into Savonarolas, excoriating audiences for their presumed racism or sexism, George manages to conjure hilarity out of the most vexing issue of our time. A cross between Greek mythology and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, the singular Hurricane Diane is a comedy of manners about climate change. That's something you haven't seen before.

Welcome to Monmouth County, New Jersey, where, as it happens, the fate of the planet will be decided. It begins with Carol, queen bee of a suburban cul-de-sac, engaging Diane, a landscape gardener, to redo her yard. "Diane," she says, "I need you to bring my fantasies to life." Little does Carol know that Diane is, in fact, Dionysus, Greek god of wine, madness, and religious ecstasy, who has decided it is time for a comeback to rescue Planet Earth from ecological disaster -- one lawn at a time.

Carol works in compliance for a pharmaceutical company -- a job that causes her to open a new bottle of zinfandel each day -- and she wants her property turned into a haven of peace and repose. In keeping with the neighborhood aesthetic, she asks for something "natural but neat, special but typical," and with "curb appeal." Getting specific, she adds, "I have to tell you, I'm just dying for a wrought-iron accent bench -- I love how it's so modern and so old-fashioned at the same time."

Diane, who practically flinches at terms like "curb appeal," has another plan altogether. She wants to turn Carol's yard into a permaculture, ripping out the grass and replacing it with milkvetch and pawpaw trees. The look, she insists, will be beautiful and natural, the front line of her offense against such modern ills as roadways, curbs, median strips, and Panera stores. Carol, horrified, dismisses her, telling her friends, "She's not even a real gardener; she's more of a forest ranger." Trying to get rid of her, she says, "You're not used to hearing the word 'no,' are you Diane?" "You know what, Carol? I'm not," comes the reply. "Well, welcome to New Jersey," Carol advises.

In firing Diane, Carol simply unleashes her on the neighborhood, with irreversible consequences. Diane plows a path through Carol's friends, seducing them all while spreading the gospel of wild flora. As played by Becca Blackwell, who is self-described as "existing between genders," Diane is a cheeky, working-class Lothario, skilled at slipping past the defenses of her targets, making them purr with pleasure while revamping their gardens into glorious wildernesses. Most of the play consists of these serial seductions, which oddly recall the Broadway sex comedies of another era, if tweaked for today with gender-fluid casting and an ecological philosophy. It's not every day that one hears Neil Simon-style laughs rolling through New York Theatre Workshop's auditorium, but you can count on it here.

Hurricane Diane is in good hands with director Leigh Silverman and her highly detailed approach to comedy, plus a fine quartet of actresses as the desperate housewives of Monmouth County. Leading the way is Mia Barron, who has a dozen different ways of signaling Carol's ever-rising distress, including the obsessive way she empties a packet of artificial sweetener into her coffee, her knack for pouring the full contents of a wine bottle into a single glass, and the muted, drawn-out cries of "No!" with which she greets each unwelcome development. I especially treasure the moment when, in consultation with Diane, she offers to show "a few clippings" from HGTV Magazine, pulling out an accordion file so swollen it looks like a portable research library. Barron isn't often cast in this kind of farcical comedy, but she is thoroughly delectable here.

Also, that sly comic actress, Kate Wetherhead, sneaks in plenty of laughs as Beth, who has been lost in a fog since her husband took off, taking pretty much everything that wasn't nailed down. She drifts in, her eyes fixed on the middle distance, making oddball observations like, "I hurt myself meditating the other day." Even more amusing is her transformation from suburban mouse to passion's plaything under Diane's ministrations. Danielle Skraastad occasionally goes over the top as Pam, who might have wandered in from an Andy Cohen reality show (or an episode of The Sopranos), but there's no denying the delight she unleashes when dismissing a neighbor's permaculture garden as looking "like the side of Route 95 in Secaucus" or swanning around in a "natural" blue leopard print skirt. ("It's a snow leopard," she adds, by way of explanation.) As Renee, who rails against her job at a shelter magazine, Michelle Beck has a memorable takedown of a world where social media and sharing content are ends in themselves: "What does that mean, 'share content'? What is 'content'? What does that word mean?"

These eco-erotic games are played out on Rachel Hauck's palatial kitchen set, which stands in for the homes of all four ladies; surrounding it are brick walls with votive candles that flicker each time Diane makes a new conquest. Barbara Samuels' lighting is naturalistic when needed and full of wildly saturated colors when the action takes an orgiastic turn. The costume designer Kaye Voyce has styled a highly individual look for each character. Bray Poor's sound design solidly reinforces the original music by The Bengsons and, when a monster storm threatens, provides impressive effects.

Along with the storm comes a stylistic switch into the fantastic, especially in a climactic confrontation in which Diane drops the mask to reveal her Olympian origins and Carol is revealed to be a far more powerful antagonist than anyone suspects. Having won us over with humor, George makes clear just how serious her intentions are, that in terms of fixing this planet, we need to hop to it before it is too late. Her message comes through loud and clear, because she has chosen to entertain rather than lecture. And she presents us with an appealing alternative in Diane's view of a reconstituted climate. Hurricane Diane is an original -- a satire that is simultaneously urgent and welcoming, even daring to be optimistic. Bring on the permaculture! -- David Barbour

(4 March 2019)

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