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The Ruins of Civilization

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 18, 2016

Rachael Holmes and Tim Daly
Photo by Joan Marcus

What does the apocalypse look like? On a superficial level, rain slickers and cat infestations: the former needed whenever one goes outside to face the torrential onslaught of constant hurricanes, the latter because all those formerly domesticated felines need somewhere to go once their owners can no longer take care of them. But in The Ruins of Civilization, the play by Penelope Skinner that just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club, such horsemen are incidental. The ravages of the natural world are insignificant when society crumbles, but the toll they take on the human soul matter a great deal. At least, that is, until politics enters the picture—which of course it must—but we'll get to that later.

Of more immediate concern are the rigors of everyday life in this brave new existence. We only ever see them as they unfold in the swank post-post-modern apartment that comprises Neil Patel's set: all glimmering glass, shimmering stainless steel, and frosted windows suggesting an indeterminate "The Future" setting. (Philip S. Rosenberg designed the omnipresent, celestial lighting, which, like the magically opening cabnets and translucent-slab smartphones and tablets we see, further reinforces this effect.) But here, for the ostensibly normal English couple of Silver (Tim Daly) and Dolores (Rachael Holmes), they don't look that much unlike what we have now. There's chit-chat about work (he's a novelist who's been working on his magnum opus for most of a decade), debates about wine (is that the essence of canned peach?), talk about vacations past and present, and those pesky cats that have been winnowing their way indoors.

When a few scary details creep in—what was up with that gaggle of poor children and the disintegrating dog they encountered when they were out driving?—they're waved away as immutable facts. Some features, though, are harder to ignore. Such as Joy (Orlagh Cassidy), the welfare worker who arrives intent on discovering just how set on children Silver and Dolores may be. Her questions ("Where are we with the pregnancy fantasies?" "How often do you think about if you would have a boy or a girl?" "How often do you feel fearful of growing old without children?") reveal something more terrifying behind her tightly smiling fa├žade, especially as it becomes more clear that her interrogation is to ensure that these two won't have children so that the may receive a healthy government stipend off of which they can live.

"Why don't they just sterilize us?", Dolores wonders. "But no, that would be inhumane. It's all about free will, isn't it?"

Rachael Holmes and Roxanna Hope
Photo by Joan Marcus

Maybe. It's certainly free will, or the illusion of it, that leads Dolores to invite a "massage worker" (quotation marks intended) to stay with her and Silver in their home. At first, Mara (Roxanna Hope), isn't keen on the idea. An illegal immigrant, she's wary of anything that may draw undue attention to her and her situation. But the luxury of the house is hard for Mara to ignore, and it's not long before she's integrated herself into Dolores and Silver's life—and her pregnancy, by rape she insists (though she says she was on the pill at the time, hmm), unfortunately into their grand social and economic agenda.

The Ruins of Civilization is never exactly subtle, but it is effective when it's underplaying its hand. Skinner (The Village Bike) paints an eerie (and, one suspects, accurate) picture of coping with global disaster on both the micro and macro scales, suggesting how tyrants of the most well-meaning elected varieties will maintain control over their citizen-subjects even when they don't actually have any themselves. And the casual references to the horrors outside of Dolores and Silver's door make them more unsettling than if we saw them firsthand because our imaginations imbue them with weight no stage technology, however advanced, could ever impart. This is a broad enough canvas on which to construct any story—no moralizing or sermonizing ought to be required.

Skinner, alas, doesn't avoid that much beyond intermission, when she abandons the supporting precepts of her fascinating exploration of understatement. Silver becomes an unfeeling nationalist, Mara his unfairly put-upon victim ("Your world excludes me. Your morality ignores me. You refuse to empathize with me"), and The Ruins of Civilization drowns in boring, preachy pathos more appropriate for a Hillary Clinton anti-Trump campaign commercial than these people at this fraught moment in their fictional history. The shift in tone is jarring, in part because the play never reorients itself and in part because the characters transform instantaneously because Skinner wants them to, not because they've earned their evolution. The message is way more important than the medium, or even basic common sense, in this case.

The direction (by Leah C. Gardiner), to this point sharp and sardonic, crumples as well, as do two of the central performances. Daly, initially excellent at projecting a not-quite-comic pompous obliviousness, is rather less interesting as the monster who gets what's coming to him, and Hope's rendition of Mara as a rugged individualist in an impossible situation compels infinitely more than the whining waif she eventually becomes. Good throughout are Cassidy, though she's only in a couple of scenes, and particularly Holmes, who charts as complete a map of Dolores's journey from certitude to doubt as it's imaginable anyone could—even when her character becomes too jumbled up to accept, Holmes never lets Skinner's lack of conviction seep into her own performance and make this woman anything but committed to living her best life at any given instant.

It's a not-easily-missed point of The Ruins of Civilization that that's not really something anyone in these circumstances can do—when things get bad enough, eking out replaces thriving as one's highest aspiration. Seeing how all these people deal with that unflinching reality from their unique perspectives is original and, in its way, gripping. But if the 2016 presidential race (which, sigh, is just getting started) has taught us anything, it's that one-dimensional recriminations against those who think differently are already everywhere—we don't need yet another play rehashing arguments we've already heard a million times. We need new methods of dealing with the End Days which, that same race suggests all too strongly, could be here as early as Wednesday, November 9.

The Ruins of Civilization
Through June 5
The Studio at Stage II at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center

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