In evaluating a play, plausibility isn’t usually an issue I get hung up on. Theater, in particular, often requires some willing suspension of disbelief. Can that other character really not hear them in the next room? Isn’t it convenient for this dark secret to drop right as we enter the third act? These are valid questions, but I tend to just not really care. A story needs telling, and I’ll afford a playwright plenty of leeway in parcelling it out before us.
Continuity tests the limits of that flexibility. Playwright Bess Wohl certainly deserves some credit for tackling the specter of climate change, an extremely difficult topic to dramatize, and there are bits and pieces to like in the final product, an appropriately bleak social satire. But her text as a whole is so haphazard, so sloppily put together and poorly mapped out, that it’s genuinely surprising to see it on-stage at a major non-profit.
In the desert of New Mexico, the crew on a major studio film is struggling to complete its last scene of the day. In the film, an eco-terrorist plans to wake humanity up to climate change by causing a tsunami, while an ecologist races to stop him. The crew is losing their light, but lead actress Nicole (Megan Ketch) is demanding the reinstatement of a cut monologue that lent scientific context. Meanwhile, beleaguered director Maria (Rosal Colon) struggles to keep things on track, while she and screenwriter David (Darren Goldstein) reconcile with just how watered-down their screenplay has become.
The play has significant challenges in tone, most of which originate from Wohl’s text. Nicole and her co-star Jake (Alex Hurt, appropriately attractive) talk like airhead divas one moment, then socially engaged environmentalists the next. The joke is that they seem vapid but have actually thoroughly done their research on climate issues. The contradiction is meant to add depth, but it plays as a gimmick. If these actors have a genuine interest in improving their movie, that goes unexplored while the wacky humor (in some takes, Nicole gives a wildly awful performance) prevails and feels forced.
More absurd is the characterization of Maria and David. Based on the scene presented here, their movie has obviously become dumb popcorn schlock. (“This is not Geostorm,” Nicole declares at one point, which if anything seems rude to American classic Geostorm.) Yet when the set’s science advisor Larry (Max Baker) points out the scene’s absurdity, both writer and director react with shock. Wohl’s idea, I think, is that Maria and David are in a deep denial, but the scene being filmed is just too obviously horrendous for this to work.
Larry the science advisor wanders in between takes to deliver monologues, usually unprompted, about the very real climate threats we face. To begin with, this is a fairly lazy device to insert some research into the play. Even putting that aside, Wohl’s final scenes hinge on the cast and crew’s shock when Larry delivers his hypothesis that humanity is already doomed because we waited too long to address climate change. I am no expert on the subject, but even I have seen this theory reported across mass media. Since these characters are meant to have done their research also – how on Earth would this be news to them?
There are elements to like here. Wohl’s use of a film set’s mise-en-scene is often witty. A running gag about characters sitting on and destroying a prop rock is genuinely hilarious. The mostly silent PA, played with genius subtlety by Garcia, works wonderfully as a commentary on the silent helpers often doing the real work. Director Rachel Chavkin, a certified genius, cannot patch up the holes in tone and logic, but she does elicit fine performances, particularly from the always luminous Rosal Colon.
Ultimately though, the play’s basic logical issues point to the facile nature of Wohl’s observations on climate change. Yes, film sets are wasteful, slow-moving and ultimately useless endeavors, much like our larger society. That is a decent place to start, for sure – the play’s constant refrain of “we’re losing the light!” takes on a smart double meaning. But it’s pretty much where Wohl’s original observations end. Except one other thing: we may well already be doomed. Well, that is nothing new, and neither is this play.