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Theatre Review by James Wilson - January 8, 2018

Bobby Moreno, Anson Mount
Photo by Joan Marcus

Robert O'Hara's Mankind, now playing at Playwrights Horizons, begins with a bang. After a night of lovemaking, Jason (Bobby Moreno) reluctantly tells his noncommittal sex buddy Mark (Anson Mount), "Dude, I'm pregnant." Mark doesn't need any time to contemplate the couple's options. He instinctively responds: "Dude, get rid of it." Set in a presumably not-so distant future in which women have become extinct, the play's very funny, very human opening is unfortunately quickly subsumed by a host of big ideas and controversial social issues. By my observation the playwright takes satirical aim at male-male relationships, expressions of gender, climate change, the limits of patriarchy, the emergence of a fascist State, and most prominently, the destructiveness and hypocrisy of organized religion. It all feels scattershot, and as a result, Mankind is as frustrating as it is enervating.

The first few scenes of Mankind, which O'Hara also directed, has glimmers of promise. After the post-coital introduction the play goes into darker territory as the two men are imprisoned for an attempted abortion, which in the dystopian, Big Brother society is considered murder in the first degree. When the couple give birth to a baby girl (supposedly because one of the fathers had previously had an abortion?), they are instant celebrities. They appear on a television talk show, and Jason and Mark inadvertently start a new religion when the infant, christened Cry-Baby, suddenly dies. By the end of the act the nascent religion has created mass hysteria among a cult of male feminists.

The inclusion of the over-the-top talk show scene with its exaggeratedly fey and deadpan hosts (David Ryan Smith and Ariel Shafir, respectively) recalls the comedy-sketch collage structure O'Hara employed in his far more successful and more pointedly satirical earlier play, Bootycandy. Similarly, the first act concludes with a hyperbolic and rather cringe-inducing religious ceremony featuring a fire-and-brimstone preacher (André De Shields educing memories of his iconic Wiz performance). The men in the theatre are invited to stand and participate in the ritual (some men are given golden Cry-Baby idols to hold), and the male congregants are asked to join in a recited prayer to the "most merciful Goddess." (It should be noted that Dede M. Ayite's ceremonial costumes are appropriately resplendent.)

André De Shields, Anson Mount, Ariel Shafir
Photo by Joan Marcus

The second act is even loopier and more meandering than the first as the couple must confront the havoc they have caused with their new religion and the revelation that Jason is once again pregnant. Incidentally, perhaps as a means of rehearsing a Creation story, the opening dialogue is repeated three times in different contexts through the play. Needless to say, it is less effective on successive hearings and the repetition produces a whiff of comic desperation. The play, though, ends with a spark of hope as gender roles appear to be evolving and women may once again come back into being.

Alex Jainchill's industrial lighting and Clint Ramos's austere, modernist design evoke a sense of futuristic rigid control and social order. Additionally, most of the scenes change with a slow revolve and a projected supertitle to indicate a shift in theme or focus. The elongated transitions, while perhaps meant to produce an ominous alienation effect, instead work against any comic momentum the play might engender. The pauses also allow time for considering the work's flaws as well as the provocative decision to produce a play about reproductive rights with no women in the cast, few on the production team, and a sizeable number of audience members who are blatantly ignored in the interactive catechism segment because of their gender.

In a recent interview O'Hara says he was inspired by Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence, a play which imagines society without black people. Crucially, however, that play, written by an African American, is intended to be performed by black actors in whiteface. Above all else, Mankind lacks a self-reflective level of irony that might have made the play more successful as social satire.

My uneasiness was heightened during a curtain speech when one of the actors stepped forward and informed the audience of the production's and theatre's commitment to assuring women control over their own bodies. In support of this conviction, the company is soliciting money for Planned Parenthood after every performance. I was happy to contribute to an organization that has my utmost respect, but after a full evening without a single woman's voice and then punctuated with a well-meaning actor representing the premier women's health care institution, I felt mightily uncomfortable (and not in a good way). I couldn't help but feeling that the play might have been more appropriately titled Mansplain.

Through January 28
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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