Plays that address climate change face a tricky challenge. To educate the audience to the dangers of global warming seems unnecessary and potentially condescending, as one hopes that the vast majority of a New York audience is aware of the inherent causes and pending insurmountability of the dangers. As an issue, it’s unwieldy. There is no obvious solution to the problem, and to come up with any stance other than “How is it possible that we still haven’t done anything about this as a global community?!” requires such a degree of magical thinking that building a drama around it could well result in a dubious exercise in futility.
At least Madeleine George’s Hurricane Diane, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop through March 10th in a co-production with Women’s Project, is not that. Instead, it offers an intriguing take on futility itself. George arms herself with a promising and inventive premise: the demigod Dionysus has returned, first to Vermont where, assuming the name Diane, she opens a landscaping business, and now – as the play opens – to New Jersey, where she must integrate four run-of-the-mill New Jersey housewives into her bacchanalian fold in order to save the planet. It is dramaturgically unclear as to what exactly this would accomplish with regard to halting climate change, but it’s tasty enough that one is willing to overlook that uncertainty.
For a while, the setup delivers. Diane (played by Becca Blackwell, balancing their grounded charisma with deadpan wit) plows through the community, installing wild native permacultures in the place of the neatly curated – and earth suffocating – lawns and curbs of suburbia. The first housewife (Kate Wetherhead) falls under Diane’s seductive spell pretty easily, and a second one (Michelle Beck) eventually follows. This action takes roughly two thirds of the play’s overall duration, and features several delicious sequences (sans Diane, intriguingly) between the remaining housewives as they gossip about their sex lives and survivalist preparations. George’s language and character work here is crisply hilarious, especially via Danielle Skraastad as the speed-talking animal-print wearing Pam, who elicits belly laughs at one point simply through the handling of a coffee cup. I wouldn’t typically describe George’s work as domestic comedy, but the play’s footing is surest when it closely observes the lives of these women and their tempestuous arguments over what’s really happening in their backyards.
There comes a point, however, that the play begins to rapidly shift gears. One gets the sense that George, during the act of writing, realized two thirds of the way through that this dramatic arc wasn’t going to pan out – that Diane, God or no, would slam into that same brick wall that the rest of us do when addressing climate change, in this case the brick wall being an HGTV-loving suburbanite named Carol (Mia Barron). The play, like the subject, veers directly into its unwieldiness, which is both necessary and somewhat dramatically underwhelming.
A hurricane helps move the play into its final frenzied moments – the power goes out, Diane moves ahead with her plan but with only three of the four women on board. There is a final encounter, a face-off between Diane and Carol, in which we gain insight into just how vanquished the old gods would be, if they dared return. The new gods – of wrought iron accent benches, of curb appeal – are here, and they’re not leaving until there’s nothing left of us.