Off Broadway Reviews
The first few scenes of Mankind, which O'Hara also directed, has glimmers of promise. After the post-coital introduction the play goes into darker territory as the two men are imprisoned for an attempted abortion, which in the dystopian, Big Brother society is considered murder in the first degree. When the couple give birth to a baby girl (supposedly because one of the fathers had previously had an abortion?), they are instant celebrities. They appear on a television talk show, and Jason and Mark inadvertently start a new religion when the infant, christened Cry-Baby, suddenly dies. By the end of the act the nascent religion has created mass hysteria among a cult of male feminists.
The inclusion of the over-the-top talk show scene with its exaggeratedly fey and deadpan hosts (David Ryan Smith and Ariel Shafir, respectively) recalls the comedy-sketch collage structure O'Hara employed in his far more successful and more pointedly satirical earlier play, Bootycandy. Similarly, the first act concludes with a hyperbolic and rather cringe-inducing religious ceremony featuring a fire-and-brimstone preacher (André De Shields educing memories of his iconic Wiz performance). The men in the theatre are invited to stand and participate in the ritual (some men are given golden Cry-Baby idols to hold), and the male congregants are asked to join in a recited prayer to the "most merciful Goddess." (It should be noted that Dede M. Ayite's ceremonial costumes are appropriately resplendent.)
Alex Jainchill's industrial lighting and Clint Ramos's austere, modernist design evoke a sense of futuristic rigid control and social order. Additionally, most of the scenes change with a slow revolve and a projected supertitle to indicate a shift in theme or focus. The elongated transitions, while perhaps meant to produce an ominous alienation effect, instead work against any comic momentum the play might engender. The pauses also allow time for considering the work's flaws as well as the provocative decision to produce a play about reproductive rights with no women in the cast, few on the production team, and a sizeable number of audience members who are blatantly ignored in the interactive catechism segment because of their gender.
In a recent interview O'Hara says he was inspired by Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence, a play which imagines society without black people. Crucially, however, that play, written by an African American, is intended to be performed by black actors in whiteface. Above all else, Mankind lacks a self-reflective level of irony that might have made the play more successful as social satire.
My uneasiness was heightened during a curtain speech when one of the actors stepped forward and informed the audience of the production's and theatre's commitment to assuring women control over their own bodies. In support of this conviction, the company is soliciting money for Planned Parenthood after every performance. I was happy to contribute to an organization that has my utmost respect, but after a full evening without a single woman's voice and then punctuated with a well-meaning actor representing the premier women's health care institution, I felt mightily uncomfortable (and not in a good way). I couldn't help but feeling that the play might have been more appropriately titled Mansplain.