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A CurtainUp Review
The Ruins of Civilization
By Elyse Sommer
The concerns about climate change that Skinner addressed in The Village Bike via a satirical take on saving-the-planet conscious shopping is the central issue in The Ruins of Civilization now having its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II. But don't expect another comedy. This is climate change beyond smart shopping plus a generous dollop of unresolved economic problems. True to the title, it's full tilt into disaster mode.
Global warming's disastrous effect on civilized society is certainly a topic worth serious exploration. And Ms. Skinner is to be commended for dishing up a full menu of major world problems and all the awful things possible if, as one of her characters says, "people keep sticking their heads in the sand." But while The Ruins of Civilization is cleverly trendy it also manages to be both overstuffed and under developed. Too many elements of Ms. Skinner's portrait of life in a ruined civilization are left frustratingly vague.
Like a cook in a Chinese restaurant preparing one of those little bit of everything soups, the playwright has flavored it with a bit of Ibsen's A Doll's House and her dystopian setting seems to be a tip of her hat to George Orwell and Caryl Churchill. She's also come up with a twist on Chekhov's watch that gun in the first act device. And, besides once again addressing issues of marital relations, she takes on the problem of people's work becoming irrelevant and the diminished availability of books published in their once standard in print format.
It this sound a bit like too much of a good thing, it is. Silver (Tim Daly best known from TVs Madame Secretary), the play's only male character, is even more obnoxious than Ibsen's Torvald Helmer. The reaction to him and the world at large by Dolores (Rachael Homes) makes this as much, if not more, an old-fashioned soap opera than a truly trendy and important contemporary drama.
The set-up is this: It seems the earthquakes, floods and other disasters that are already part of our own daily news reports, have escalated to a point where only Great Britain (there's no mention of the U.S) has survived total disaster. This makes for an ecological counterpart of the 1% haves/99% have-nots economy that's infuriating so many Americans these days. Silver (if there's a symbolism to this odd name, it eluded me) and his wife Dolores may not be billionaires, but they live quite comfortably in a sleekly equipped modern house. In fact they're even able to travel abroad for vacations and for him to do research for a book that will probably be published, possibly even in a traditional format.
As I've already said, this isn't a comedy with serious undertones as The Village Bike was,but a straight on tragedy of life in a surviving segment of the world. Unsurprisingly, that life is hardly normal. The changes have called for difficult adjustments for the populace. The frequent rain England is known for is now unabated and heavy. No one ventures outdoors without a hooded raincoat. Compassion for less fortunate world neighbors is an unthinkable emotion. Dolores's job has become obsolete.
While a ripple effect of the already ruined countries on the still more livable England is understandable and inevitable, the play somehow fails to make us understand the how and why of some of the Orwellian national dictums. The one life controlling measure around which the plot pivots is a no-baby rule that's enforced with mind control tactics. More peripheral and puzzling, except to make cat poison a household necessity (and a prop to keep an eye on) is a no cats rule.
The dystopian set-up brings on two other characters: Joy (Orlagh Cassidy), an executive to monitor possible infractions of the no baby rule; and Mara (Roxanna Hope), an immigrant from a devastted Eastern European country who gives Dolores the courage to defy and outsmart her overbearing husband — not easy, considering that Silver for all his surface confidence kowtows to officialdom. He is totally acquiescent when it comes to doing what's necessary to survive in this compassionless, I'm all right Jack world.
I've previously seen Orlagh Cassidy, Tim Daley and Racheael Holmes acquit themselves well in other plays. All, as well as Roxanna Hope, do their best to inhabit their characters. The two key players, Holmes and Daly, bring a strong presence and clear British accents to their roles. However, Holmes somehow fails to convey the push-pull of loving and resenting her husband's control-freak charms; nor has Daly found a way to make the smug Silver nuanced enough for his underlying sensitivity and true love for Dolores to be convincing.
The play's production values are first class. The ominous constancy and increased intensity of the rain is effectively evoked by the deluge seen and heard outside the window of Neil Patel's unit set. Under Leah C. Gardiner's direction the grim story moves smoothly to its predictably dark conclusion. If only The Ruins of Civilization didn't come off as such a depressingly possible omen.