“In my experience, it’s hard to move in the world if you don’t show people all of who you are,” says the ageless demigod. “In my experience, it’s extremely easy,” replies the 21st-century human being. Thunder rumbles. A storm is coming — and a battle. It’s ecstatic truth, violent rebirth, and earthly, earthy salvation in one corner and safety, comfort, and assured destruction in the other. The stakes are cosmic, willful annihilation is at hand, and — Dionysus be praised! — it’s a comedy.
Madeleine George’s fantastic, heartbreaking Hurricane Diane is a comedy in the most ancient, expansive sense. It’s the kind of comedy that holds a tragedy inside it, plying us with laughter until we’re tipsy, then lovingly, ruthlessly slipping in the knife. Hilarious, shattering, and full of keen observation and profound human affection, the play both lifts us up and wrings us out. And it’s worth noting that it’s the third production in New York Theatre Workshop’s on-fire season to understand that if it wants to talk about big, fearsome things, then it’s got to take risks with its form. Following on the heels of the brilliant, Broadway-bound What the Constitution Means to Me and the audacious, shape-shifting Slave Play, Hurricane Diane—a co-production with WP Theater—blows in with its own fierce commitment not simply to tackling an issue of urgency and substance, but to finding its own intrepid dramaturgical structure. All of these plays wrap brutal honesty with giddy humor; all of them eschew self-seriousness and easy didacticism and yet are deadly serious in intent. They’re playing for keeps instead of playing it safe, and most crucially of all, they are actually playing.
The raucous, wily “god of agriculture, wine, and song” — and theater, of course — would approve. And that’s lucky, because that very god is the star of George’s play. “I have returned!” announces Dionysus, in the overwhelmingly charismatic person of Becca Blackwell, as Hurricane Diane begins. This god doesn’t beat around any bushes: She’s here to plant them instead. A quick note on pronouns here: The extraordinary Blackwell, for whom George created the role of Diane/Dionysus, is a trans performer who uses the pronoun “they.” The characters in George’s play (and George herself in the stage directions) use the pronouns “she/her” when referring to Blackwell’s character, whom they meet in the human form of a charming butch permaculture gardener named Diane. (I’ll follow suit here.)
“Diane,” it seems, has been lying low and generally loving life on earth for a couple hundred centuries. She fondly remembers her ancient “heyday” —when she’d “ride into town on a leopard, or a bull, or a leopard/bull hybrid if they had one handy” and summon hordes of frenzied bacchants to her side to perform her ecstatic rites — but being a demigod ain’t what it used to be. “You know your own story,” she tells us bluntly, with neither malice nor pity. “You started to settle for ecstasy knock-offs: Creature comforts. Customer satisfaction. And at a certain point, I just stopped putting myself out there.” She’s lived many lives over the millennia, most recently as a landscaper “off the grid with a bunch of lesbian separatists in a consensus-based community” outside of Burlington, Vermont (“A fucking paradise!”). But the climate clock is ticking, and she can’t afford to leave Earth in the hands humans anymore. It’s a classic case of this is why we can’t have nice things: The selfish children have wrecked their beautiful playground, and the cosmic parent has to stage an intervention.
Blackwell is immediately and utterly arresting onstage. Broad-shouldered and wry with an honest-to-god twinkle in their eye and a burst of orange curls in something that could be called a mullet except that it’s too genuinely hip looking, they hit you with a wave of authentic unaffected cool. The rare, luminous kind of cool that’s a product of actual, hard-earned self-assurance and emotional generosity — the polar opposite of its impoverished, scraping and straining social disease of a sibling. Fixed with their steady, half-smiling gaze, you feel like a freshman when the raddest senior in the school unexpectedly gives you an acknowledging head tilt in the hallway. Being seen by a person who can really see is a powerful thing.
As the four women who people the New Jersey suburb where Hurricane Diane takes place will soon discover. Diane has chosen to begin her climate-saving revolution in Monmouth County. She needs a bastion of cozy normality to upend, and she senses suppressed bacchantic stirrings in four housewives living in four identical homes in a tidy Red Bank cul-de-sac. (The exciting Two River Theater, in Red Bank, originally commissioned and premiered Hurricane Diane, and also Be More Chill, opening on Broadway in two weeks.) There’s Carol (Mia Barron): neat, forceful, HGTV-obsessed, and deeply unhappy. There’s Renee (Michelle Beck)—successful, articulate, woke, and fearful that she’s sold her soul—and Beth (Kate Wetherhead), whose husband has left her and whose wispy, scattered exterior masks something unfulfilled and feral. And there’s Pam (Danielle Skraastad), an unstoppable, leopard-print-clad dynamo of Jersey energy — aggressively caring, “full-blood Italian, both sides,” full of Fresca and preparedness and pride, loud of mouth and “pure of heart.” Diane rolls into town and offers to make over their lawns (Carol wants accent colors and wrought iron benches, Beth wants a fairy garden, Pam wants the “Mediterranean palazzo” she’s seen in a painting on the wall at the local Italian restaurant) — but she’s really after their souls.
Critics, myself included, sometimes use the word “sitcom” in a pejorative sense when writing about a play. Modern theater is plagued with unexamined, default-setting realism — where familiarity of tone and lack of theatrical vision deaden us to content, no matter its gravity — but in Hurricane Diane, George is doing something braver and much more invigorating. She’s got an excellent ear for casual, hilarious patter, and she’s putting the sitcom form to work inside a bigger box to bigger ends. Like Rachel Hauck’s subtly witty set, the play’s casual realism will eventually split apart, shattered into pieces as the story’s sense of time accelerates and expands, hurtling swiftly towards the eco-apocalypse. “You don’t know what time it is on the cosmic clock,” Blackwell’s Dionysus tells us, marveling at our blindness. “How could you? With your bird lives, your fruit-fly lives, hatching and feeding and breeding and dying, all in the blink of a god’s eye? So, let me tell you what time it is. It’s eleven fucking forty-five.”
Along with director Leigh Silverman, George sets the stakes in no uncertain terms at the very top of her play, so even the bubbly, neighborly, suburban-women-drinking-wine comic banter that follows has an edge to it, like it’s occurring on an invisible precipice. Which it is. Hauck’s clean, white, cookie-cutter kitchen of a set has a sly commentary built into it (it’s actually four identical kitchens, one belonging to each of the women) and it’s surrounded by empty space, the stripped brick walls of the theater exposed on all sides. When Diane gestures out the French doors and describes the verdant natural paradise she envisions — all pawpaws and milk vetch and indigenous ground cover and companion planting — we see nothing but darkness. Barbara Samuels keeps the lights low and a little menacing, proving that real comedy will cut through whether it’s spotlit or not. Despite Diane’s lush “word pictures” of landscapes reinvigorated with “organic joy,” shadows are pressing in on all sides. I felt myself flash back to The Neverending Story, that most frightening of children’s films, where for the first time in your young life, the villain isn’t an identifiable bad guy but simply “The Nothing.” An all-consuming force of annihilation, slowly decimating the edges of the world. The existence of the Nothing is the horrifying revelation of childhood. The horrifying revelation of adulthood is that we created it.
And George’s play is horrifying. But it wouldn’t be half as much so if it weren’t so funny, too. With Silverman’s snappy, dexterous support, every actor on stage is nailing the comedy and then diving fully into the tough, the sad, and the weird. Wetherhead, as the most open to Diane’s divine seduction, has something mad — or maybe terribly sane — flickering in her eyes as she dreamily relates the story of her wedding night, where, despite tradition, she begged her husband-to-be to stay with her because “inside me was a box, and I knew if I was alone, even for one night, the lid might fly open and all the leather-winged wildness inside would swarm out.” Playing the New Yorkiest of the characters, Beck jumps nimbly between smart satire and real pathos. It’s very important for Renee to perform her right-mindedness, and especially to remind her friends repeatedly that she used to live with a woman. But her speech to Diane late in the play — when she gradually reveals her fear that she’s nothing more than a smart, savvy coward — is sincere without a hint of schmaltz, and gut-wrenchingly close to home.
Meanwhile, Skraastad is such an unabashed, uproarious whirlwind as Pam that even Diane is sometimes left wide-eyed and windblown. The night I saw the show, Skraastad often ended her scenes — or even her speeches — to well-deserved bouts of applause, especially after one vivid aria in which she bluntly describes her commitment to having sex with her husband every day “to keep from, you know, hating his guts.” “One day I just realized,” Pam declares with characteristic no-frills philosophy: “When I look at this man I need to think, that’s the guy I sleep with. Not, that’s the guy whose string-cheese wrappers I pull from between the couch cushions.” It’s a bang-up performance, made somehow even better when you learn that George based this particularly juicy Pam-ism on a real-life conversation.
And then there’s Carol. Carol the holdout. Carol the comfort addict. Carol the “typical.” The single cell of a vast, self-protecting, unyielding organism — a creature whose destructive human stubbornness might just be a match even for a demigod. Barron undergoes a thrilling transformation in the role, from seemingly laughable primness — she has a great knack for delivering curt little disapprovals on the inhale — to bone-chilling monstrosity. Ultimately, she’s a terrifying adversary for Diane, not because she represents the banality of evil, but the evil of banality.
There’s so much to celebrate and to shudder at in Hurricane Diane, and my only wish was that Silverman’s staging choices in the play’s more heightened sequences always matched the specificity and force of her scene work with the actors. The husband-and-wife duo the Bengsons, along with music director Ellen L. Winter, have provided the play with haunting original music, and Bray Poor’s sound design stretches from the whimsical to the cataclysmic — but visually, Silverman doesn’t always take full advantage of the supercharged moments in which Diane comes together with the women she seeks to turn into acolytes. The repeated buildups are so well-scored, so tense and tantalizing, that it’s hard for the shimmying embraces that often occur at their peaks not to feel a bit anticlimactic. Staging ecstasy is a hell of a challenge — how did those Greeks do it? Still, the spirit of Dionysus is not a spirit of nitpicking, and as both play and performance, Hurricane Diane is a harrowing, enlivening blast of that spirit. I left New York Theatre Workshop in that vibrating space between sorrow and exhilaration, and biked home with a line from Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” running through my head:
We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust.
I guess we’ll just have to adjust.
Hurricane Diane is at New York Theatre Workshop through March 10.