'The Ruins of Civilization': Theater Review

The Ruins of Civilization Manhattan Theatre Club - Stage 2 -H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
This theatrical vision of a dystopian future never comes into focus.

A couple living in a futuristic society open their home to a stranger in this world premiere play by Penelope Skinner.

Is it any wonder that the future depicted in Penelope Skinner's new play is dystopian? That's the only sort of future we're in for, if you believe the endless books, plays, television shows and movies on the subject. But however accurately forecasters have predicted bleakness, one can only hope that the future is less boring than the one depicted in the not-too-subtly titled The Ruins of Civilization.

In this work receiving its world premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Skinner — an emerging British playwright whose The Village Bike was presented off-Broadway in 2014 — imagines a futuristic society that bars immigration (there's a vague reference to a "Wall") and strictly limits procreation.

Married couple Dolores (Rachael Holmes) and her writer husband Silver (Tim Daly) live in a luxurious home provided by the government, which also gives them a stipend to live on. But they're subject to periodic checks by government representative Joy (Orlagh Cassidy), who grills Dolores on whether she still thinks about having children. Dolores assures her that she no longer has a desire to bring new life into the world, but her response to Joy's query about how often she thinks of killing herself is less reassuring.

"Constantly," she tells her questioner.

The couple has just returned from a trip to an unspecified country in danger of being swallowed up by the ocean due to climate change (you can practically sense the playwright marking items off her dystopian future checklist). Dolores is distraught over their not having stopped to help a dog that was dying in the road. But judging by the liquid poison readily available to kill a stray cat that has wandered into the house, and much to Silver's disgust, left a nasty mess in their kitchen, animal life is not highly valued.

After the trip, Delores responds to an advertisement from Mara (Roxanna Hope), a massage therapist immigrant from the country they've just visited, and invites her to the house. Mara is initially suspicious of Delores — she advises her that she specializes in "happy endings" — but eventually agrees to her offer to stay in their home. Silver is less enthusiastic about the invitation, but reluctantly agrees while warning Mara that he'll kick her out immediately if he senses any funny business. Things become much more complicated when it turns out that Mara is pregnant after being sexually assaulted by a client, with Delores determined to shelter her and her baby.

"We're going to be a family," Delores informs her. "A f—ed up, weird family with a secret baby. But so what? It's not the first time in history people have had to hide away. Maybe we should call the baby Anne. Or Frank."

It's not just that the play's themes feel so distressingly familiar. It's that they're also rendered in tedious, meandering fashion, with a vagueness that's more frustrating than intriguing. With the exception of the nurturing Dolores, the characters are not particularly relatable; the officious Silver is downright dislikable despite being played by Daly (currently seen on Madam Secretary), an actor who exudes amiable charm.

The performers do what they can with the schematic material, but they're also hampered by the British accents they've been forced to adopt. There's no particular need for them, since the play's setting, although meant to be England, could well be indeterminate.  

Leah C. Gardiner's listless staging does little to elevate the energy level of the proceedings, but the production at least looks terrific, notably Neil Patel's sleek and impressively modernistic set design. Jessica Pabst's costumes also excel, with Daly wearing particularly cool-looking shoes. Of course, if the onstage action were more compelling we probably wouldn't even notice them.   

Venue: NY City Center Stage II, New York
Cast: Orlagh Cassidy, Tim Daly, Rachael Holmes, Roxanna Hope
Playwright: Penelope Skinner
Director: Leah C. Gardiner
Set designer: Neil Patel
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Philip S. Rosenberg
Music & sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club