Let me get to the bottom line about Jason Grote’s Civilization (all you can eat), now playing at Woolly Mammoth. I like it a great deal, and I don’t know why.
Civilization is one of those shows – Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy was another – where several seemingly unrelated stories are shown as brief episodes, and only at the end do they come together, both as theme and plot. Think Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”; think John Barth’s “Letters”. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
I think it works here.
The most compelling story is about a pig – Big Hog (Sarah Marshall), who, in the abattoir that is his home, devises a plan to escape. Big Hog has his own language – pig-English – which, in true porcine fashion, is composed of lists of things he desires to have, to experience, and to eat. His brilliant plan is to wound himself, thus preventing his scheduled slaughter, and then bowl over the medico (JaBen Early) who tries to treat him, and escape into the wide world.
Big Hog is ruthless, cruel, and acquisitive. Yet it’s hard not to like him. Faced with the direst of fates, he seizes initiative, plans well, acts boldly. He makes himself responsible for what happens to him. He is a hero, as we civilized folk define heroism.
The other characters – not so much so.
There’s Zoe (Tia James), an aspiring filmmaker who is directing an advertising account. There’s Karen (Jenna Sokolowski), a talentless actor who, as best we can tell, aspires to be a cult leader. There’s Michael (Sean Meehan) who is hawking his book on how to apply chaos theory to get ahead in business. There’s Carol (Naomi Jacobson), a waitress who refinanced her home during boom times and now cannot make her mortgage payments, and her daughter Jade (Casie Platt), who works in a big-box store.
They are all related to each other in ways you will see in the show.
Jade wishes to supplement her mother’s income, and her own, by making porn movies with her nutcase boyfriend. This does not sound like a very dignified choice for Jade, but it is not much less dignified than the principal professional concern of the others, which is to make a commercial in which the suicidal actor David (Daniel Escobar), playing Thomas Jefferson, bitch-slaps George Washington (Alice Gibson) over a Twix Bar.
They’re very successful, these commercials.
Every one of these people, except for the impoverished Carol and Jade, are free-lancers. They live on the edge of the economic abyss; the failure of any project they undertake would be catastrophic. And except for Zoe’s commercials, they are all failing – Karen’s vague aspirations, David’s acting career, Michael’s ridiculous theories. If they had learned Big Hog’s ruthlessness – had learned how to lie and fake, and then bowl over an obstacle – they might have learned how to be successful in civilization.
But they hadn’t.
* * *
One of the dangers of an episodic play is that there is so much separation between the scenes that they seem disconnected from each other, almost like skits. That happened occasionally with Bootycandy, which I thought was otherwise quite artful. It doesn’t happen here. Director Howard Shalwitz makes sure of that, sliding the scenes in almost on top of each other, but with precision and grace. Occasionally the characters from a new scene literally chase their predecessors off the stage; the look of panic and alarm on the latter’s faces are priceless.
And – as you might expect from a cast like this – the acting is spot-on. Marshall, an extraordinary actor with a specialty in playing extraordinary beings, is – well, you can guess what I’m going to say. She is a great Hog. And among the rest of the überskilled cast, Meehan, who plays a man you know is going to end up like Willie Loman, and Platt stand out. Meehan’s Michael radiates an optimism and sense of adventure he doesn’t feel at all; Meehan displays the phony joy and the real despair in pretty much the same proportion as it occurs in nature. And Platt expands her vast repertoire of physical, mental and spiritual children with Jade, who aspires to be a hard-bitten bitter-ender but lacks the skills for it.
And among all these characters, the person we end up admiring the most is not a person at all but a Hog. This is because, alone among the characters, Big Hog seizes his destiny, doing Whatever It Takes to achieve whatever he wants. He is our ethos and our mythos, our John D. Rockefeller and our Horatio Alger.
He is what we in our civilization aspire to be.
* * *
The environmentalist John Atcheson (who has written for DCTS) argues in this column that with a minor sacrifice of our own comforts, we could resolve some of the most intractable problems facing us today, including global warming and the deficit. Acheson points to studies which show no correlation between wealth and happiness, and which point to 1957 – hardly the high point of American wealth – as the high point of American happiness. And Mike Daisey has brilliantly argued that if American consumers are willing to give up a few high-tech doodads, we could force a factory in China to improve some of the world’s worst working conditions.
They say that the truth hurts, but it doesn’t. It feels good. It helps you understand that you’re not insane if what you see about human beings varies from what our aspirational leaders tell us we should see. Grote is an honest playwright who appears to prize truth. And it’s the truth that he tells which is the reason I like this play so much, I guess.
He’s not telling us that we’re pigs. He’s telling us that pigs are what we’re trying to become.
And that, brothers and sisters, is Civilization.
Civilization (all you can eat)
By Jason Grote
Directed by Howard Shalwitz
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, without intermission