With a giant pig running hog-wild at its center, Civilization (All You Can Eat) is easily the most rambunctious of the three premieres in Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks series this year. But that’s not the only reason I found it to be one of the sharper and more incisive new plays I’ve seen this season. Dramatist Jason Grote has an admirable knack for steering ostensibly ordinary scenes into uncomfortable territory, where people’s weaknesses, selfishness, and hypocrisies get exposed.
The aforementioned Big Hog (gamely played by Tony Torn), with an insatiable appetite for violence, makes his way into the big city, where he joins Grote’s cadre of depressed creative types—desperate actors, filmmakers reduced to making racist commercials, untenured professors turned self-help consultants—all wondering how everything turned out so wrong. Civilization’s seven shell-shocked characters share a common struggle for fulfillment in an unsparingly demoralizing 2008 America—separately at first, and then together as Grote reveals their links as friends and family.
Director Seth Bockley’s simple, sure-handed production features a cast remarkably in synch with the writing’s social commentary and irregular rhythms. (Jeff Biehl and Melle Powers are especially strong as an interracial couple of intellectuals bewildered by their new lives as freelancers.) Wordless sequences between scenes, imaginatively choreographed by Dan Safer, suggestively reinforce the title’s proposition that the smallest gestures take part in a larger human feeding-frenzy.
At times Grote’s drama teeters into heartfelt but too-familiar terrain, lamenting the short supply of love and understanding in a cruel world. But the playwright can be quick to make such sentiments look pathetic or ironically naive, too. His least linear sections resonate with the darkest humor and hold the most interest. Indeed, the play scores its biggest coup when Big Hog ultimately goes corporate, revealing how baseline animal instincts get covered up by pleasantries and power suits. Civilization emerges from the fray as a taut and funny work, simultaneously offbeat and spot-on.