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A CurtainUp Review

"Mankind is a play set 100 years after the female body has been legislated out of viable existence and women have become extinct. Now, Men must live underneath the same rules they had put into place upon the female body, and now they must come face to face with themselves in its absence. . .it's a cautionary tale. Lit with gasoline." — Robert O'Hara explaining his mission in the program.
Bobby Moreno and Anson Mount (Photo: Joan Marcus)
My first encounter with Robert O'Hara dates back the Public Theater's production of his first play Insurrection: Holding History. Given that he was a protege of the Public's then artistic director George C. Wolfe, this debut kindled a small fire of anticipation. We headed to the theater prepared to be bowled over. As it turned out, we were impressed with the ambition and chutzpah of his endeavor, but not sufficiently taken with his brand of irreverent wit to be completely bowled over.

The promise of Insurrection was more fully realized when O'Hara returned to the Public Theater in 2015 with the terrific Barbecue. A year before that his very amusing Booty Candy was mounted at Playwrights Horizon and he's now returned to their main stage with Mankind.

This is a conventionally structured two act play. That's conventional in that it has a plot thread that focuses on the relationship of two central characters — unlike Booty Candy which, like the currently popular merger of the short story and novel genre via inter-linked stories, used an assemblage of free standing scenes to add up to the overall story of a gay black man growing up in America.

But conventional is hardly a fitting term to describe Mankind's premise and the playwright's choice to develop it with enough issues for at least three plays. As a genre, it falls under the umbrella of sci-fi and dystopian literature. Thematically, it's primarily a feminist play. However, with O'Hara's typically grand ambition in full force, it wildly expands on the basic concept of satirizing the experience of two men living in a world from which all women disappeared a hundred years ago. Besides the effect of such a set-up on these men's personalities and familial interactions, Mankind also takes on the fallout of dictatorial governance, religion and climate change.

All these issues tend to have special relevancy in the Trumpian world that we really are living in. Unfortunately, this new play, like O'Hara's first one, allows its themes and comedic elements to collide so that everything spins out of control and loses the aimed for satiric balance.

That said, Playwrights Horizon, which not only hosts but commissioned Mankind, has certainly supported it with a no-expense-spared production. And, while the potential emotional impact of the basic premise is weakened by the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink thematics, O'Hara does once again display considerable directing skill. He's taken advantage of the money that's been expended to launch Mankind. With a strong assist from previous collaborator, scenic designer Clint Ramos, Mankind has a dynamic visual environment for Jason and Mark's story to move into its interesting if imperfect tragic-comic Orwellian territory.

Wearing his director's hat, O'Hara also elicits fine performances from the actor playing his two main characters, Jason (s Moreno ) and Mark (Anson Mount); and he ably steers the four other actors Andre De Shields, Stephen Schnetzer, David Ryan Smith and Ariel Shafir) through multiple other roles. Andre De Shields's several turns as a prosecuting attorney are especially noteworthy.

While there have been some previous attempts to explore a single gender dystopia, this has always been about situations without men. Mankind not only envisions such a single gender world a hundred years forward but turns the all-female idea on its head; and I'm not spoiling any surprises when I tell you that Jason and Mark's casual date has resulted in the play's most extreme and unlikely premise: That men can actually be baby incubators. The very first scene reveals that Jason is indeed pregnant! It also has O'Hara de-throning David Mamet as the king of f-bomb infused dialogue,

Since the anti-abortion dictum men imposed on the women who once bore them is still in effect for Jason and Mark, their decision to "get rid" of the baby that neither wants is bound to end badly. It's the ever more surprising results of that pregnancy that account for the eventual thematic overkill. This is particularly true for the first act's fourth wall breaking finale and the second act.

Despite its narrative flaws Mankind is praiseworthy for the fine performances, evocative lighting and sound design by Lindsay Jones (another previous O'Hara collaborator), Dede M Aylite's situation defining costumes and Jeff Suggs' video design. All insure that this is an interesting and never boring failure. I wish I could think of some such redeeming elements that would make the reality show that's currently ensconced in the White House less insufferable.

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Written and directed by Robert O'Hara.
Cast: Andre De Shields (Jason's father, others),Bobby Moreno (Jason), Anson Mount (Mark), Stephen Schnetzer (Mark's father, others),Ariel Shafir (Detective, others)), David Ryan Smith (OBGYN, others).
Scenic design by Clint Ramos
Costume design by Dede M. Ayite
Lighting design by Alex Jainchill
Original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones
Video design by Jeff Sugg
Hair, wig and makeup design by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova.
Stage Manager: Erin Gloria Albrecht
Running Time: 2 hours including1 Intermission
Playwrights Horizon Mainstage Theater 316 West 42nd Street
From 12/15/17; opening 1/08/18; closing 1/28/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/06/18 press preview

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