Robert O’Hara’s “Mankind” Sends Religion and Gender on a Sci-Fi Bender


To save a nation, said the French revolutionary Georges Danton, you need “audacity, more audacity, and always audacity.” I begin to suspect that this may also be playwright-director Robert O’Hara’s recipe for creating theater. He has been daring the edges of outrage, audaciously and satirically, since his early Insurrection: Holding History, and did so triumphantly a few years ago, with Bootycandy at Playwrights Horizons. Now he is back there with Mankind, a freewheeling futuristic fantasy, less fully realized and less securely centered than its predecessors, but with no letup in the audacity department. When the play’s thinking blurs and its dramatic focus skitters, its brash impudence will see you through.

The audacious impulse clearly comes from a deep place in O’Hara’s consciousness, which may explain why he handles his material in such a jittery way, sometimes insistently reiterating points and at others making capricious leaps of logic. The time is a future in which the female gender has inexplicably died out and males have acquired the power to bear children. This hasn’t improved matters much for those who’d love to dodge the burden of parenthood: Abortion is a crime more stringently prosecuted in this dystopia than in the minds of today’s Republicans. And the totalitarian entity that controls everybody’s life, the “World Power Authority,” has eyes and ears everywhere: If you even mention getting rid of a prospective baby, your ob-gyn will report you to the cops. And even if you squeeze past that obstacle, video records of the conversation in which you broached the prospect may turn up on worldwide TV.

Writers have previously toyed with the idea of male parturition (Sam Waterston and the late Walter McGinn had a baby together in Spitting Image Off-Broadway in 1969), mainly for the comic effects of pregnancy on the male body and male psychology. O’Hara eschews all that, just as he sweeps past any imaginative fun about what sort of institutions an all-male world might evolve, or any mock-scientific exploration of how single-sex biology became reproductive destiny. All we know about this world is that it’s much like ours but not nearly as pleasant. “Mankind,” in the absence of females, is apparently a misnomer: The men we see are anything but kind to one another. O’Hara does get a bit of absurdist humor out of their failure even to evolve a terminology that differentiates the impregnator from the one who carries the child. Both parents are “fathers”; when a man gets talking about his fathers (“my father waited until my father was away on business”), we’re almost back in the world of Ionesco’s Bald Soprano, with that extended family of which every member is named Bobby Watson.

But O’Hara has bigger game in his sights than linguistic absurdity. His fictional pair of “fuckmates,” Jason (Bobby Moreno) and Mark (Anson Mount), find themselves stuck with a pregnancy and jailed for even raising the subject of abortion; their prison-born offspring turns out to be a female “cry-baby,” the first girl born on Earth in a century. As a result, a cult rises around them, a religion of “feminism” that blames the loss of women on the failure to grant them equal rights (including, ironically, the right of abortion). After that, things truly go haywire. Jason and Mark find themselves not only liberated but venerated as the parents of a new messiah. (A very big laugh occurs when Clint Ramos’s set magically turns into the shrine of the “Cry-Baby,” complete with a giant gilded replica of same.) Even Jason’s and Mark’s surviving fathers (André de Shields and Stephen Schnetzer) join the cult.

The World Power Authority, inevitably, does not take kindly to this rebellious new religion. With equal inevitability the religion itself goes through schismatic conflicts. To resolve them, a sacred text somehow comes into existence. As Mark and Jason fade into memory, a new generation begins both to revere and to rewrite them, somehow starting back at square one with the same tensions that led to Jason and Mark’s torments in the first place.

I’m being deliberately vague about these plot developments, partly to avoid spoiling some of O’Hara’s more startling surprises, and partly because he himself, in his anxiety or eagerness to get from one high point to the next, has left many matters fuzzy or unexplained. How this monosexual world functions, how its government operates, how the newly created “Uber-feminist” religion fits into it and takes hold are all matters left cavalierly hazy. Nor do the characters ever become more than sketches, a fact that sometimes lures the actors into shouting to cover up the void. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine that a dramaturg or a different director could have helped O’Hara find his way out of these foggy spells his concerns seem too deep-seated, too much a matter of vision rather than calculation, for that to happen.

And ultimately, that deep-seated concern wins out: Whether it fascinates, challenges, or merely bugs you, Mankind catches hold. Easy to complain about, or to pick holes in its dramatic fabric, it is not easy to shake off. Other than audacity, the prevailing drive in O’Hara’s work seems to be his quest to discover serious, even tragic, meaning within the comically absurd. That makes Mankind, for all its irritations and shortcomings, an important part of his ongoing development. Mulling the play over, I’ve found myself coming back to two quotes from theater critics of the past: Stark Young, reviewing one of Eugene O’Neill’s most peculiar and unsuccessful plays, Dynamo (which also deals half-satirically with the founding of a new religion), said that what moved him and held his attention was not anything in the play itself, but “the cost to the dramatist of what he handled.” And Kenneth Tynan, reviewing a satire on religion that had been dismissed by others as an “undergraduate prank,” said, “When a critic uses the term ‘undergraduate prank,’ you know he has been shocked to the very core of his being.” I don’t know if any reviewer has called Mankind an undergraduate prank, nor would I say that O’Hara has yet displayed the tragic strength of an O’Neill; I write in a time when critics have learned from experience not to make such grandiose claims. But I do know that Mankind is bothersome in a good and potentially fruitful way, and that O’Hara’s continued audacity may well pay remarkable dividends.

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
Through January 28