In a program note for “Mankind,” a fun comedy that turns berserk about a future world in which women are extinct, its playwright and director Robert O’Hara explains that he found inspiration in “Day of Absence,” a 1965 play by Douglas Turner Ward. In that play, black people have disappeared, forcing white people to manage on their own — for example, taking care of their own children. In “Mankind,” men must live with the rules they imposed “on the female body,” when there are no longer such bodies. O’Hara writes that his play is like Ward’s — “a satiric cautionary tale. Lit with gasoline. And tossed into the Age of Trump.”
O’Hara’s note is much appreciated, since it goes some ways towards clarifying the play – though not far enough. O’Hara’s premise is promising, his inspiration laudable, and his stated intentions honorable. The production at Playwrights Horizons is professionally acted and designed with a sense of whimsy. But, ultimately, “Mankind” is muddled. If it does establish the tone of a satiric cautionary tale, it’s not always clear what it is satirizing or what it’s cautioning against.
In the first scene, Jason (Bobby Moreno) and Mark (Anson Mount) have just had sex when Jason confesses that he’s pregnant. Mark doesn’t take it well:
“Dude, how is this possible?”
Jason gives him a look: “You know how.”
“Dude, get rid of it.” (They call each other Dude a lot.)
At his next appointment with his OBGYN (David Ryan Smith), Jason confides with a whisper that they “might want to get rid of it.”
“Abortion is illegal, Jason.”
But, convinced that Jason will simply seek the procedure elsewhere, the OBGYN promises to help, and asks for the identity of the father. It was a ruse; the doctor calls the cops, and Jason and Mark are thrown into jail for attempted murder.
From there, “Mankind” takes some wild leaps, which I suppose would be spoilers to tell you about in any detail – I’ll say only that they involve a miracle birth, and the rise of a new religion called Feminism. But the plot turns in “Mankind” are themselves sort of spoilers, swerving from any realistic (or at least semi-realistic) ramifications of a male-only world. There’s something deeply clever about turning gay relationships universal and thus not really gay at all, but O’Hara moves on, as if impatient with his premise.
Now, O’Hara has indulged an anarchic comic spirit in two previous plays, both of which I loved — Bootycandy, also at Playwrights Horizons, in 2014, and Barbecue at the Public Theater in 2015. They both made provocative points about identity, whether race or gender or sexual orientation, but they did so clearly and hilariously.
“Mankind” takes jabs at organized religion in ways that you needn’t be observant to find uncomfortable. (At one point, the audience is asked to stand and recite the “prayer” and sing the “hymn” that we’ve been handed.) The play also takes shots at feminism, depicting it as narrow-minded to the point of being inhumane. It’s possible O’Hara is saying that men just don’t understand women’s concerns – that feminism without women would be warped — but he doesn’t set this up sufficiently. There are also scattershot pokes at popular culture and government overreach that are so unoriginal they barely register. O’Hara just seems intent on being playful without thinking out his imagined world with enough care or focus.
There is a hint that climate change caused the women to die out a hundred years ago; at another point, there’s the suggestion that the banning of abortion is what caused it. We get some throwaway lines to suggest a corrupt, money-obsessed, authoritarian society. There’s some ingenuity, at least theoretically, in the repetition of that first scene several times — first in accusation, then in affirmation, and then as holy rite. But it’s one thing to realize that’s what the playwright was doing and another to have to sit through it.
The six members of the all-male cast include two actors whose work I have long admired – Bobby Moreno as pregnant Jason, and Andre De Shields as Jason’s father. They deserve kudos for being willing to go wherever O’Hara takes them, but that winds up nowhere as fresh or pointed as the playwright’s previous plays.
In one moment in the play, Anson Mount as Mark tells a horrendous tale of being forced at a young age to have an abortion. It’s a relief then, that, at the curtain call, a member of the cast read a statement supporting women’s reproductive rights, and urged audience members to donate to Planned Parenthood on their way out the theater. It was thus clear, as it may not have been to everybody during the play, where O’Hara stands on at least that one issue.
Written and directed by Robert O’Hara
Scenic design by Tony Award winner Clint Ramos, costume design by Dede M. Ayite, lighting design by Alex Jainchill, original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones, video design by Jeff Sugg and hair, wig and makeup design by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova.
Cast: André De Shields, Bobby Moreno, Anson Mount, Stephen Schnetzer, Ariel Shafir and David Ryan Smith
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including an intermission
Tickets: $449 – $89
Mankind is scheduled through Sunday, January 28, 2018.