theater review

Theater Review: Mankind, Where Wokeness Conquers Most

From Mankind, at Playwrights Horizons.

“Is it possible to write a feminist play with no women in it? And that a woman did not write?” asks Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, in the program for Robert O’Hara’s new play Mankind. It’s a question — and a play — specifically calibrated to prick up our ears in this #MeToo moment. Both are supposed to provoke us, Make Us Think, even anger us. In an interview in the Times, O’Hara — whose plays Bootycandy and Barbecue have earned him a reputation for biting satire — asserted to Alexis Soloski that he tells casts of his shows, “Have your bags packed. They’re going to run us out of town.” Sanford’s program note for Mankind strikes a similar tone — equal parts titillating, cautionary, and ambitious: “Prepare to have your minds blown.”

If only. But no one’s going to be chasing the cast of Mankind down 42nd Street with pitchforks. It’s far from the incendiary send-up of modern misogyny that O’Hara imagines. Watching its somewhat underbaked dystopia take shape on Playwrights’ Mainstage, I found myself less interested in whether this was a feminist play (or, more broadly, a progressive play) than in whether it was a compelling one. And I couldn’t help thinking that the contemporary compulsion to produce the former might sometimes kneecap an artist’s ability to create the latter. A touch facetious though it may be, Oscar Wilde’s famous quip kept running through my head: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”

Taking its cues from Douglas Turner Ward’s satirical play Day of Absence — in which the white population of the world falls into infantile chaos after waking up to find all the black people mysteriously gone — Mankind takes place in a distant future where women have long since died out. A generic sort of surveillance state known as the World Power Authority governs this female-less universe, but despite the Big Brother vibe (there are only brothers now, of whatever size), dudes are making do. In O’Hara’s opening scene, two particular dudes, Mark and Jason, find their casual hookup arrangement suddenly complicated by an unexpected postcoital announcement: “Dude,” says Jason, “I’m pregnant.”

In and of itself, this isn’t actually the shocker it sounds like: Even in this future, where men have somehow figured out how to procreate, the gender-role binary remains intact and the traditional family unit looks much the same, just with more penises. It’s not the existence of pregnancy that rocks the world of the play, but rather Mark and Jason’s attempt to terminate theirs. “Dude, get rid of it,” Mark tells Jason immediately. After all, they’re both “on the pill” — this never should have happened. They’re not ready for it. They don’t want it. They don’t even know each other that well. They’re just “fuckmates, dude.”

But there’s a problem. As we’re soon informed by Jason’s OB/GYN (played with amusing prissiness by David Ryan Smith), abortion is illegal. Even trying to inquire about getting one through back channels gets Jason and Mark thrown in prison for attempted murder. In the clink, Jason carries his pregnancy to term and — lo and behold! — it’s a Girl! The first one born in 100 years! But, spoiler alert: Don’t get attached. This miracle child — weirdly called just “Cry-Baby” by its parents (maybe they’ve forgotten any female names?) — doesn’t live long. Just as Mark and Jason are making a handsomely compensated appearance on live TV with their new celebrity offspring, Cry-Baby is carried off by a bloody coughing fit. In the wake of this tragedy, O’Hara turns the satire dial up to 11: The hapless Mark and Jason and their dead baby become the unlikely messiahs of a zealous upstart religious movement. Its name? Feminism. Its mission? “Prepare the world for the return of SHE” by “removing all sanctions to the female body … And killing all nonbelievers.”

From here on out — to paraphrase the shell-shocked and newly deified Mark at the top of Mankind’s second act — things get out of hand. O’Hara is interested in parodying man’s imbecility to man, and institutionalized misogyny isn’t his only target. In fact for much of the play he’s got his sights more firmly fixed on organized religion — its absurdities and hypocrisies, the way in which our gods and gospels are, quite literally and self-servingly, manmade. It’s rich soil, so why does it not yield more exciting fruit?

To begin with, the play’s dystopia is simultaneously underdeveloped and overexplained. “I’m your OB/GYN,” “Abortion is illegal,” “There hasn’t been a girl born in 100 years,” “You have started a religion” — all this naked exposition is arguably excusable in a future world that has to teach us its rules, but it’s also full of holes and elisions. How have men adapted to give birth? Why is abortion illegal? What drove women to extinction? On that last and most crucial question, O’Hara writes in his show’s program that “the female body has been legislated out of a viable existence.” That sounds profound, but actually … what? “My idea is that the right got what they wanted,” O’Hara adds in his Times interview, “They wanted to control the bodies of women, and that led to an extinction.”

But how? It’s all right that we, the audience, aren’t necessarily given an explicit answer to that question; it’s not quite all right that it feels like O’Hara himself doesn’t have one. (Even less all right is the surely unintentional but unavoidable implication that women, having succumbed to toxic male aggression, were in fact “the weaker sex.”) No more does the playwright have an answer for why abortion is illegal in this post-woman world, other than: “Because I think men are stupid.” That feels disingenuous and, worse, fashionable. It’s a point-scoring pull quote, not a deeply fleshed-out premise on which to build a play, and its flippancy leaves Mankind feeling thin — an extended Twilight Zone episode rather than a trenchant, humane social critique.

It’s a shame to watch O’Hara get tripped up by his own good intentions, especially because at his best he’s got a wicked, playful sense of humor and a clear desire to see the kindness riffed on in his play’s title more frequently and purposefully enacted in the world. Jason and Mark mostly alternate between bro-y detachment and screaming at each other, but in one of Mankind’s strongest scenes, they start to open up about their pasts, venturing into the unexplored terrain of vulnerability and empathy. Here, it feels as if Anson Mount (as Mark) and Bobby Moreno (as Jason) truly meet each other’s eyes for the first time. They both do their most moving work in this brief detour into character development — Moreno giving Jason the bashful lust of the innocent turned heartbreaker and Mount adding the depth of confusion and regret to Mark’s masc-dom exterior. The fact that they play out this scene of hesitant gentleness while decked in the ridiculous garb of their new roles as Feminist Deities — extravagant, jewel-encrusted gowns and headdresses designed by Dede M. Ayite — is a clever bonus. Suddenly, the satire of Mankind acquires its own missing kindness. These poor, selfish fools look absurd — they are absurd — but at last we care about them.

O’Hara, whose direction of his own play mostly errs on the side of heavy-handedness, here succeeds in bolstering his sketch-like premise with a much needed dose of sincerity. It doesn’t last: We soon return to the world of cartoonishly drawn supporting characters, destructive male venality and idiocy, and mostly predictable digs at our messy moment’s sorry state of things (“things” ranging from religious sectarianism to abortion rights to climate change). Satire is a difficult and paradoxical beast: take away its humanity and you take away its bite. Mankind often feels sadly blunted — save for those instances in which O’Hara lets us see his characters not simply as stupid men, but as humans. Then, all at once, the play shows both its heart and its fangs.

Theater Review: Mankind, Where Wokeness Conquers Most