By Tulis McCall
Well, here is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into. Or tried to get us into. Or warned us about. Or something along those lines.
The Ruins of Civilisation (British spelling please) at the Manhattan Theatre Club is intended to scare the crap out of us. In a world in the distant future people live in very clean places and have spotless lives. Unless they visit them that don’t.
Dolores (Rachael Holmes) and Silver (Tim Daly) are an English couple living somewhere in England. They haver just returned from a visit to a Mediterranean country filled with ruins and doomed to be swallowed up by a rising sea. It is populated with children who will die there and dogs who are already on their way out. Why they went there is uncertain, but it may have something to do with Silver’s book, which he has been researching for ages.
No matter. What is important here is Dolores and her state of mind, which is a little dodgy. In this England, people who choose to have children are left to fend for themselves. People who choose to remain childless are given a stipend that ensures they can live a decent life with red and white running wine. Dolores, as Sil tells us, is old-school. She was brought up by environmentalists who taught her that she could make a difference. Coming to terms with doomsday is proving not so easy for her, whereas Sil is a pragmatist. Stiff upper lip and all that.
Up first is an interview with Joy (Orlagh Cassidy), a government worker to whom Dolores refers as a “jobs worth” – someone who uses her position to become a knit-picker. Joy’s interview digs into any untoward thoughts that Dolores might be harboring about having a child. Dolores has no more thoughts, she tells Joy. She is mentally clean as a whistle. Until Joy asks, off the record of course, how often Dolores thinks of killing herself. The answer: constantly. While this is upsetting to Sil, Joy thinks nothing of it because she has seen all this before. Dolores passes with flying colors and the stipend is set to resume. Hip Hip Hooray.
Not so fast. Dolores, left to her own devices is still thinking about that country they visited. When she sees an ad for a massage by a woman from the said country she asks for an appointment. Mara (Roxanna Hope) arrives and is soon enrolled into moving in with Sil and Dolores. Dolores still believes that helping one person changes the world. Dolores, like so many women over the ages, pretends all is well but has a stubborn streak that will not be squashed.
With the arrival of Mara, things begin to disintegrate. Mara brings the outside into the sterile abode, and once in, like a stray cat it will not be put out. The conclusion, an unbelievable one, is seen a mile off and, although meant to be upsetting it barely causes a ripple.
This is a well intentioned piece that is part Doll’s House and part Twilight Zone. Ms. Skinner’s writing, however, rather than being exploratory, is confining. While the character of Mara is many layered (and beautifully played by Holmes) the other three are one-note. Mr. Daly does everything he can to be something more than petulant and Ms. Holmes nearly does handstands to bring nuances to lost and lonely. But they can only do so much when the text of this play has them painted into iconic corners.
We get the point very early on in this play. The world is going to hell in a handbag, and the people who believe in a Solution are offstage somewhere very far away. Check. Once this is established the play idles like an old Ford pickup. The engine revs periodically, but the gears never engage. We end up pretty much where we started. That is when when we realize that the door to this basement was nailed shut from the get-go, and we just spent the better part of the evening sitting in the dark. Literally.
The Ruins of Civilization – By Penelope Skinner; directed by Leah C. Gardiner
WITH Orlagh Cassidy, Tim Daly, Rachael Holmes and Roxanna Hope
Sets by Neil Patel; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg; music and sound by John Gromada; dialect coach, Charlotte Fleck; production stage manager, Brian Bogin; general managers, Florie Seery and Lindsey Sag; director of production, Joshua Helman; associate artistic director, Stephen M. Kaus; line producer, Nicki Hunter. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer. Through June 5 at the Studio at Stage II, City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan; 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours.