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The Great Immensity

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Chris Sullivan and Erin Wilhelmi.
Photo by Richard Termine

The burden pressing down truly is wearying: the accumulated weight of countless people, bearing—and creating—untold tons of indifference which, contrary to their almost-certain intent, unintentionally makes the crippling problem affecting them much worse rather than even a little better. This is the trouble facing both Karl, the antihero protagonist at the forefront of The Great Immensity, the play wish music by The Civilians that just opened at The Public Theater, and The Great Immensity itself.

Written by Steve Cosson and featuring songs by Michael Friedman, the show is aiming at a target just as big as its title describes: climate change, or, to be more precise, our attitude toward it. But this thoroughly dramatized outing from the troupe that's best known for bracing-but-approachable documentary theatre like Gone Missing, (I am) Nobody's Lunch, This Beautiful City, and In the Footprint is so uncharacteristically unwieldy as far as its message that it does far more harm to it than good.

Assuming, that is, it's even possible to discern the actual intent. A surface reading would suggest its goal is to rouse the masses from their teeming torpor, just as happens to Karl (Chris Sullivan): A documentarian who was demoted from shooting Shark Week videos for the Nature Channel because his last feature addressed the creatures' alarming scarcity rather than their at-boat's-length threat, he traveled to Panama to film "cool stuff used for research" and disappeared, inspiring his wife, Phyllis (Rebecca Hart) to come out in search of him.

Phyllis discovers that he hasn't drowned or suffocated beneath a ton of howler monkey excrement but has instead abandoned his past to devote his life full time to the cause. And certainly, in the compact form in which things unfold here, Karl's conclusion is understandable: polar bears are dying left and right (when they're not mauling humans in Churchill, Canada, that is), the ineffectual U.N. is ruining chance after chance for averting disaster, and there's no hint presented of dissenting views on humans' contributions to climate shifts; here, as in most public discourse about this topic, the science is settled.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but as written and directed (also by Cosson) the lack of any depth to the claims and worries put forward robs the play's world of energy and context, which makes it impossible to understand—let alone interpret—what you see. Everything is so earnest, the affected characters so desperate, that it seems as though it's supposed to be straightforward. But depicting Karl as a tireless, moralistic crusader willing to eviscerate the lives of those closest to him opens a jagged wound in that theory. Others on his side of the fight are no better: Julie (Erin Wilhelmi), an adolescent "Earth ambassador," is an emaciated scold with an anarchic streak; Karl's anonymous Anonymous contact (Damian Baldet) wears a permanent, discomforting sneer that highlights a barely concealed viciousness.

Cosson may be trying to say that there are no good guys in a battle of this magnitude, that the impossibility of the tasking facing us turns us all into monsters. But things are too fuzzy for us to know for sure. We can't applaud their efforts; the people are too nasty. We can't be appalled at their methods; their hearts are in the right place. Nor can we view anyone as a conflicted individual locked within a difficult situation; the one-dimensional treatment of the issue and absolutely avoidance of its associated controversies make any effort to embrace true complexities ring utterly hollow.

The result is a painfully long evening (more than two hours) filled with characters constantly screaming at walls real and imagined, but are disinclined to make a genuine appeal for a ladder. The effect is of a disjointed protest, a "Hell no, we won't go / What do we like? We don't know" kind of thing that thinks making noise its own reward. The plot, which is so all over the map that you can't know where you are (Mimi Lien's warehouse unit set don't help, though Jason H. Thompson's projections are inventive) until you leave, and so all over the place that you're drowning in orchestrated political chaos one minute and Biblical allusions the next, does not have coherence on its mind.

The performances are thus just as confused and marginal. Sullivan makes a game go of Karl, but is unable to unlock any tender or sympathetic tendencies from him; his proclamations of love for his wife, before giving her a vial of his sperm so she can have the child he won't be around for (yes, really) and then leaving her forever, are stunning in their absurdity. Hart, the only role with a tangibly obtainable objective, attractively underplays Phyllis's quest early on, but gives in to histrionics later. The other cast members, who include Cindy Cheung, Dan Domingues, and Trey Lyford in a variety of roles, try but fail to escape the writing's gravity well of annoyance.

Friedman, traditionally reliable and occasionally better (as in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), fares little better. His songs, long-winded but catchy, encompass a tangle of genres from tango to vaudeville softshoe, but like Cosson's book struggle to assert themselves or clarify the show around them. The opening number, for example, equates storms like Hurricane Sandy, the proliferation of jellyfish, and Detroit's economic downward spiral with human climate antipathy, connections that—perhaps wisely—are not revisited in the scenes that follow.

Such moments resound with unhinged paranoia, not common sense, which is how the myriad arguments to which you're exposed are couched. But this is but one contradiction of many that muddies these waters. For example: The Paris summit that's central to the plot is held up time and time again as our only lasting hope, while another song cites congressional intervention as responsible for the extinction of the passenger pigeon—and yet we're supposed to demand more government to solve the climate problem? Forget about there being no easy answers—The Great Immensity can't even figure out what questions it's trying to ask.

The Great Immensity
Through May 1
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets and performance schedule at

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