Wallace Shawn's play Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which opened last night at the Public Theater, is basically a very long shaggy cat story - absurdist, intriguing, and sometimes humorous - but if it has any point at all it would seem to be that scientists shouldn't muck about with the food chain.
The conceit of Grasses is that the audience is attending a reading that a doctor named Ben is giving of his voluminous memoirs, and it is only after it gets under way that one gradually comes to the realization that despite his genial manner he's mad as a hatter and a sexaholic.
The saga opens with Shawn strolling onstage wearing a black brocade dressing gown, black pajamas with a black polka dot ascot knotted at his neck, and black velvet slippers on his feet. He ambles over to a lectern upon which rests a glass of water and a small vial of some liquid - a drug of indefinite origin but given what follows could be LSD, which he imbibes - along with a huge book that would make the O.E.D. look like a pamphlet.
In a chit-chatty, conversational style at which Shawn is so adept, he begins to tell Dr. Ben's life story in the first person. He then offers a dissertation on the human digestive system, and that leads to a discussion of the main problem facing the planet, namely an inadequate supply of food to sustain life. As Dr. Ben puts it, there are simply too many animals wanting to eat, and too few sitting around waiting to be eaten.
To alleviate this problem Dr. Ben invented what he called Grain No. 1, which when saturated it with a chemical of his own devising replaced all other foodstuffs. Through a series of mutations, Grain No. 1 became infused with the remains of the animals themselves so that creatures that may even have been herbivores began eating their own kind.
Needless to say, this had certain ramifications for life as we know it. Bizarre behavior among various species followed.
Pigs, to give an example, began to have sex 15 or 16 times a day. But all the side effects were not so pleasant. If real-life Mad Cow Disease destroyed bovines' brains, the plague created by Grain No. 1 ate away at intestines. Daily bodily functions now included vomiting two or three times a day. Carcasses of dead animals began to pile up.
Dr. Ben then shifts gears. Beginning with a rumination about women who take their clothes off in public, he segues into a paean to his own penis, and proceeds to give a graphic and detailed description of his very active sex life. The prudish should be advised that a large part of the show consists of casual discussion of a variety of sexual practices, including bestiality.
Dr. Ben tells how he met his mistress, Robin; left his wife, Cerise; and later met the woman with whom he is now living, Rose. At the center of the story, however, is a fantastical account of his encounter with Blanche, a cat with whom he had an erotic adventure and who remains a major character in his life and is a key if unseen part of the play.
If some of this is mildly amusing in the beginning it is mainly because of Shawn's abilities as a raconteur. He is a natural storyteller who can hold an audience's interest with a tale of only passing interest. But even as a futuristic yarn - it is set in a time long after the era when, as Dr. Ben puts it, "people didn't masturbate in public" - tedium begins to set in early.
An extremely able cast helps. Jennifer Tilly is excellent as Robin, and keeps the three-plus hour play moving along at several points when it begins to drag. Husky voiced and sultry, she can make the most outrageous sound plausible, even alluring.
Julie Hagerty gives a fine performance as Cerise, nervous, skittish and fragile as only she can be, and Emily Cass McDonnell is convincing as Rose. Andre Gregory, Shawn's longtime collaborator, directed with a sure hand, and Eugene Lee's box of a set and Howard Harrison's lighting enhance the production considerably.