Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 9 January 2018

Review: Mankind at Playwrights Horizons

Playwrights Horizons ⋄ To 28th January 2018

Cameron Kelsall reviews Robert O’Hara’s “feminist” play.

Cameron Kelsall

The cast of Robert O’Hara’s Mankind at Playwrights Horizons. Photo: Joan Marcus

Gloria Steinem famously quipped that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. Robert O’Hara takes that thread and runs with it in Mankind, an occasionally amusing but ultimately facile social satire, receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. Set a century after women have been “legislated into extinction” and men have picked up the reproductive mantle, O’Hara’s busy comedy-drama attempts to skewer feminism, anti-feminism, religious opportunism, repressive government oversight, and the vapidity of media-driven culture. But in traversing so much well-trod ground, the author rarely finds anything new or insightful to say.

The play’s first scene sets a comically irreverent tone that comes and goes over the next two acts. In a moment of post-coital reflection, Jason (Bobby Moreno) confesses to Mark (Anson Mount) that he’s in the family way. Mark becomes incensed – partly because they’ve only been hooking up for a month; partly because Jason waited until after they had sex one last time to tell him. His position is clear: “Dude, get rid of it.” Mark and Jason repeat the word “dude” more than forty times over the course of the five-minute scene; the script’s stage directions advise them to “embrace, like dudes.” O’Hara wants to remind us that we’re not watching a play about some cute gay couple. These are men who fuck each other out of necessity, who’ve adapted to their womanless world order.

We quickly learn that abortion has remained illegal; Mark and Jason are imprisoned for even trying to obtain one. (The play’s universe feels vaguely totalitarian, although its specifics are never explained.) This stood out to me as red flag number one. It strains credulity that a law meant to humiliate and control women would be retained in an all-male society, particularly one that makes no effort to replicate traditional gender roles. It’s clear that all men are at risk for pregnancy – one of O’Hara’s truly humorous tricks is the varied repetition of the word “father” throughout the play – and it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t want the option to terminate.

The restriction instead exists to set the play’s major theme in motion: after Jason gives birth to the first girl born in a hundred years, a rogue group of so-called “feminists” elevate the couple and their child to iconic status, building a cult-like splinter-religion around the worship of “Cry-Baby,” who dies almost immediately after her birth. Their belief: “The only way to bring back Wo-men is to fight for their civil rights before they get here.” Abortion on demand. Economic parity. Abolishing the patriarchy. All that good stuff.

O’Hara spends the rest of the play entwining gender and religion in ways that should be interesting but never quite gel. This is largely due to a lack of character development; as a playwright, O’Hara cannot seem to decide whether he wants to present his personae as archetypes or full-blooded human beings. The result largely falls somewhere on an inconsistent continuum, with the talented ensemble cast taking up outsized and stereotypical roles dropped in from a variety of sources, including farce, crime drama, dystopian fiction, and space opera. The always wonderful André De Shields seems most at home in this idiom, appearing in the first act as a sort of gender-fluid oracle (his magnificent costume is by Dede M. Ayite) and in the second as Jason’s concerned but shrewd father.

Set against this comical background, Jason and Mark should emerge in contrast as recognizable, three-dimensional people. They never do. What makes them tick remains a mystery, both in their quotidian early days and their subsequent elevation to the level of deities. Under O’Hara’s largely indifferent direction, Mount and Moreno give passive, uninteresting performances, but I remain unsure of how much blame they should shoulder. I’m not sure anyone could have turned these two men into engaging figures.

The impetus to satirize religion results in the play’s best scene: a faux church service that’s part Catholic liturgy, part revival meeting, part performance art. But overall, O’Hara rarely tells us anything we don’t know. He uses a pair of insipid talk show hosts (Ariel Shafir and David Ryan Smith) to reflect our cultural obsession with salacious reality television, but stops short of identifying any new insight into why we’re drawn to such catastrophically human spectacles. And even his overarching points about religion – that it’s driven by commercialism and tribalism, and that it’s ultimately just an invention – have been made time and again, with greater clarity and pointedness.

Most distressingly, you start to forget at a certain point that this play is ostensibly about feminism. Perhaps that’s the danger of a play about women’s issues that’s written and directed by a man, with an all-male cast and a largely male design team (the clunky set and inarticulate lighting are by Clint Ramos and Alex Jainchill, respectively). In the end, Mankind might serve as the perfect exemplar of male feminism: it knows all the right things to say, but it doesn’t follow through in action. Dude, try harder.

Mankind runs to January 28, 2018 . More production info can be found here.

Cameron Kelsall

Cameron Kelsall is a theater critic and arts journalist working in New York and Philadelphia. In addition to Exeunt NYC, he regularly contributes to The Philadelphia Inquirer, American Theatre magazine, Broad Street Review, Parterre Box and other publications. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association.

Review: Mankind at Playwrights Horizons Show Info

Directed by Robert O'Hara

Written by Robert O'Hara

Cast includes André De Shields, Bobby Moreno, Anson Mount, Stephen Schnetzer, Ariel Shafir, David Ryan Smith

Running Time 1 hour, 55 minutes


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