Robert O'Hara's "Mankind" a Spotty Gift to Humankind

01/09/2018 02:49 am ET

You can say this for Robert O’Hara, whose uneven, though acclaimed, Bootycandy prompted Playwrights Horizons folks to commission a follow-up work: He sets his premise for the resulting Mankind quickly and builds on it with convincing logic throughout act one. Not that scrupulous logic is enough. And then, act two is a sorrier story.

Something like a century after women have vanished from the earth—yes, this is science fiction into the middling bargain—and men’s bodies have adapted for child-bearing, Jason (Bobby Moreno) and Mark (Anson Mount) begin a 10-week sexual liaison that in today’s vernacular has a term for expedient regular intercourse that won’t be employed here. Okay, they’re buddies—with a four-letter preceding expletive.

The problem for this relationship instantly vouchsafed by Jason to Mark is that, though he’s on the pill, he’s pregnant. Trading obscenities with each other over the predicament, they decide their only recourse is abortion. This in a society where abortion is illegal.

Thinking a hospital aide will point them in the right direction to satisfy their purpose, they discover the man has actually turned them over to the authorities. They look to be in a bad way until Jason goes into labor and produces a plot spoiler that didn’t surprise me but maybe only because I’m excessively show-wise.

Unfortunately, there’s really no way to continue writing about Mankind without revealing that the newborn (spoiler ahead: read on at your own peril) is a baby girl, who comes to be known as Cry-Baby.

In a further spoiler (apologies!), Cry-Baby isn’t long for that 100-years-plus future world. Her demise provokes an uprising of feminism, i.e., a potent desire for the return of what O’Hara’s characters dub “wo-men.” And that’s not the end of it. Jason and Mark become talk show regulars. Even more elaborately, a religion springs up, deifying Cry-Baby as a savior and establishing Jason and Mark as living icons. (In time they get to sit around in Dede M. Ayite’s gaudy robes and headpieces).

Since Mankind is being promoted as a satire, perhaps this is where O’Hara intends some of his satirical pokes to do their damndest: Something akin to Catholicism prevails around the baby, who, like Jesus on the cross, is blood-smeared. (Set designer Clint Ramos is likely the one who created the huge golden sculpture that dominates the stage at this point.)

And—get this!—a service is held as act one’s conclusion. During it, robed actors pass out liturgical cards and small Cry-Baby replicas. (Oh, the production expense!). The men in the audience are then encouraged to stand in vocal supplication. Many do. And by the way, Lindsay Jones’s mock-somber music, which has played almost throughout the proceedings, keeps nudging the mood.

But enough of plot summary, especially since O’Hara doesn’t quite know where to take act two and eventually falls back on a second pregnancy and birth. Along the way, there’s filling in on Mark’s own childbearing past, and a jail return for him. As either Jason or Mark blurts at one frustrated moment, “This has gotten out of hand.”

Anyway, the audience evidently knows Mankind is satire, since the program iterates as much. Granted, religion, as indicated above, is a satirical target—a heavy-handed, attenuated target, at that. In addition, O’Hara seems to see his opus as a pro-woman screed. (Has he signed up at #MeToo?) If it is, that aspect escaped me.

What didn’t escape me is a numbing dullness to the production, the kind that often accompanies a playwright’s self-satisfaction at being deeply, darkly serious. This means unsolved complications for O’Hara, who clearly shouldn’t be directing his own work but is. For their part actors Moreno, Mount and the doubling André De Shields, Stephen Schnetzer, Ariel Shafir and David Ryan Smith can do little to alleviate the script’s drawbacks, try though they mightily do.

In that program note, O’Hara reports that when asked to contribute this next PH piece, he decided to expand a 10-minute play he’d written a few years earlier. Maybe he should have left it at that.

Related observation: The long-running and hilarious Trey Parker-Matt Stone Book of Mormon is also about how religions emerge. So if you want to enjoy a satire on the subject that lands with the reassuring splash of a returning rocket, the Trey Parker-Matt Stone contribution is the one to see—or the one to see again.

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