You might think that a play about a world where women are extinct would smack of misogyny. But Robert O’Hara’s wild, politically charged satire “Mankind” turns out to be highly sympathetic toward the female gender. The men, it soon becomes clear, are desperately lost without them.
Both written and directed by O’Hara (his raucous, raunchy “Bootycandy” caused a stir a few years back), the comic drama is set a century after women have vanished. Why? Because abortion was outlawed, and once women’s rights eroded away so did the women themselves. But the men adapted, developing the capability to have babies. Never mind that society evolved into a harsh police state where conversations are recorded and men get thrown in jail for seeking an abortion.
Which is precisely what happens to regular guys Jason and Mark, who are causal “fuckmates” and freak out when Jason realizes he’s pregnant. The heated exchange, where they repeatedly call each other “dude,” is as hilarious as it is unnerving.
“Dude, this was never supposed to turn into a relationship,” Mark says bitterly. “Dude, you think I want to have a child with you?,” says Jason. After the argument, they awkwardly embrace, like dudes.
After the baby is born — miraculously, it’s a girl! — the play veers into wacked-out territory reminiscent of the Theatre of the Ridiculous, the broad countercultural movement from the 1960s. The already strange plot grows ludicrous. The fathers become celebrities and lead a popular new religion comprised of fervent male “feminists” who worship a goddess called SHE. The central icon is a vulgar golden baby bleeding from the mouth (don’t ask). The costumes, by Dede M. Ayite, get glitzier — the divine duo’s ecclesiastical robes are resplendently gaudy.
All this would spin out of control were it not for Clint Ramos’ solid, ingenious set design, elevated by Alex Jainchill’s artful lighting and Lindsay Jones’ corny-yet-chilling music and sound.
Sturdy performances also help bolster the proceedings. For the most part, Bobby Moreno, as Jason, and Anson Mount, as Mark, play it straight, though by the end they can’t help but camp it up a bit.
The legendary André De Shields, who appeared on Broadway in the original “The Wiz” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” is a delight to watch as one of Jason’s fathers and other roles that defy easy description. David Ryan Smith, Ariel Shafir, and Stephen Schnetzer tackle numerous supporting roles with gusto and finesse.
For his part, O’Hara is fascinated with the gender limitations of language. Starting with the title, “Mankind,” women are inherently excluded. Other words like “history” and “amen” also are male-centric (in the new feminist religion, hymns are peppered with “ah-wo-men” instead of “amen”).
Also of note is that since homosexuality is the order of the day, gay identity is rendered irrelevant.
As in “Bootycandy,” O’Hara likes to break the fourth wall and get the audience involved. At the end of the first act, male theatergoers find themselves standing and reciting a spoof of the Lord’s Prayer, honoring Goddess instead of God and chanting, “We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.” The uneasy fact that women in the audience are left out underscores the central conceit of the play.
To be sure, the entertaining “Mankind” is brimming with bold theatricality. And yet, it’s not easy suspending so much disbelief — only 100 years for male bodies to develop eggs and a womb? — or finding meaning amidst the mayhem. Granted, the pro-choice and anti-religion messages come through. But ultimately we leave the theater dizzy and unsatisfied, scratching our heads.
MANKIND | Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. | Through Jan. 28: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $39-$89 at ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200 | Two hrs., with intermission
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