Set 100 years after the female body has been legislated out of existence, and women have become extinct, this daring and satirical new play, Mankind, by the always aggressively passionate Robert O’Hara (Bootycandy, Barbecue) dives in with this compelling and complex scenario as a backdrop. How would society look and act if men, without the experience of or the interactions with a woman (or taking this one step further, a mother), took on all the roles that nature requires for continuous life. Gloria Steinem suggested once in the famous quote: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament” but playwright and director O’Hara (Bella: An American Tall Tale) suggests something very different. That men, acting stupidly and without deep consideration, might end up clinging to old rules and laws for the sake of tradition and structure, even when they don’t make sense in the here and now. That men, without women to lord over and try to control, would end up oppressing each other, because each other is all that is left. It’s clear that in this world, men, naturally, are having lots of sex with one another, but sadly, in O’Hara’s dystopian future, it’s the children who are getting fucked over the most (excuse my french, but if that word bothers you, or the continual use of the term, “dude”, this play is not for you, because both words are said, a lot). In Mankind, there are no fathers doing or even trying to nurture their boys. The two men at the center of this tale, the only two characters who have been given an actual name rather than a title or position, are void of any maternal or caring role models to help show them the way. They are left without a guiding hand towards engagement, other than the carnal pleasures of sex, money, and power. Financial gain and ego, the two largest components of masculinity and male-behaviors, sacristan in our culture, are on full testosterone display in O’Hara’s futuristic sci-fi version of life.
It all begins with a ridiculous and funny opening scene, one that uses repetition (to an extreme) to make a pretty clever point of the non-gayness of men having sex with men. That interaction also has more epic meaning than one could ever have imagined at the onset. This isn’t portrayed in real world method style acting, but in many ways, this first scene is as real as Mankind gets.
Jason, a young and impulsive dude, played by Bobby Moreno (MTC’s Fulfillment Center) has a confession to make to his fuck-buddy, Mark, played by Anson Mount (CSC’s Three Sisters) sleeping next to him. That even though they both were taking precautions, being on the pill, Jason finds himself pregnant with Mark’s baby. How did this happens in this new world? Well, that’s never explained, we just have to take it on faith, much like the immaculate conception is believed by Christians worldwide. It just is, and this parallel is exacting, as this play is about the creation of religion as much as anything. Getting rid of it, as suggested by the older and cooler-minded Mark, turns out to be not as easy as Steinem or any of us would first imagine in a society where only men exist. In this new world order, all the others represent oppressive characters of structure or extremists and, just like the impressive but wobbly set, inventively designed by Clint Ramos (Once On This Island) with a strong visual style by lighting designer, Alex Jainchill (Old Times/Assoc. Design) and video projections by Jeff Sugg (Sweat), they are parts of a larger authoritarian machine going by the name of ‘World Power Authority’.
There is a Detective (Ariel Shafir), an Attorney (André De Shields), a Warden (Stephen Schnetzer), and an OBGYN (David Ryan Smith) to name a few. There are fathers: Mark’s father played by Schnetzer (Oslo) and Jason’s, played by De Shields (CSC’s As You Like It) who materialize when least needed. And there is Bob and Bob, two disconnected and wildly exaggerated hosts of a Hunger Game-esque talk show, simply called “The Bob and Bob Show” played oddly and ridiculously by Shafir (Rattlesnake’s Medea in Jerusalem) and Smith (Broadway’s Passing Strange). It reminded me of Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) in ‘The Fifth Element’. But sillier. For no apparent reason.
Once the cultish Feminists take hold (it’s a bit too complicated to describe the how and why here, and to be honest, in that absurdity of creationism is where the fun, if any, can be found), the exaggerated becomes convoluted, guided with an all-over-the-map hand by director O’Hara and visually extended by the costumes designed by Ded M. Ayite (Signature’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train). The one moment in the second act that actually feels emotionally valid is when Jason and Mark finally have an emotionally relevant conversation about sex and the ‘first time’. It’s a beautiful and telling exchange, that brings them closer, while also bringing us into their world for one moment. It humanizes the satirical, and for me, makes the outrageousness around them more meaningful and engaging.
There are a number of interesting concepts thrown out at us, and if they connect, you might catch hold of it for the quick moment it is played with. But don’t expect it to be dissected too much. The ideas of: taking text out of context and creating doctrine that can be warped in a way to be used for violence and oppression; removing difficult passages and ignoring the illogical in order to make a religion more palpable and easier to take in; the wealth that religion can create for the leaders; and the gender stereotypes adopted and their impact on others. They are all presented for moments here and there, along with many other fascinating detours of thought and theology. If that all sounds like a lot being thrown your way, you’re absolutely right, it is. And each scene takes you one or two steps deeper into a huge and complex puzzle satirizing religion, cult culture, feminism, historical and patriarchal authoritarianism, and so much more. If only O’Hara had dug down deep in just one of these compelling topics of the day, especially in the way it could parallel our current state of affairs, a more focused piece could have been created. The end scene, while layering gender stereotypes and the insanity of religious belief structures, also is trying to present hope as well. But as is, Mankind is too idea-heavy and cloudy to see anything clearly. It is a progressively outrageous satire that blossoms into a convoluted mess of ‘hot topics’ easily lampooned out at us with no deeper analysis than the simplistic idea that men are dopey and foolish when it comes down to all of this. And that they eventually will take the easy route, just like O’Hara has in his direction and writing. At the end of this journey, we find ourselves even more lost and confused as before.