Science fiction is notoriously difficult to stage. Beyond the inherent challenges of staging technology that doesn’t exist, the genre often speculates about uncharted social and political realities complete with their own lingo and mores. These can be explained gradually in a novel; however, the compressed nature of a play forces audiences to grasp the rules and language of the new world much faster.
The Ruins of Civilization, a new play by Penelope Skinner, avoids these perils, largely because Skinner’s dystopian future requires little suspension of disbelief. We encounter sleeker versions of gadgets that already exist, a language that is completely recognizable yet slightly foreign, and a set that hints with subtle clues at a world just beyond our present. More urgently, the play suggests a bleak sociopolitical future that is within the realm of possibility.
In this near-future England, Silver and Dolores receive a government stipend for not having children. Many coastal regions around the world are going underwater, and the Earth’s population has reached a point of Malthusian chaos that must be stemmed through incentives. Silver is a struggling writer and unbridled misogynist who sees his wife as the center of his world, despite treating her like a child. Silver keeps the house full of surveillance cameras that hang from the ceiling and watch ominously with unblinking red lights, à la HAL 9000. It’s Pygmalion meets 1984.
Dolores secretly wants a child, and feeds cats (considered vermin in this world) as a maternal outlet. She is chaos and nature to Silver’s reason and order. When she meets Mara, an immigrant masseuse from an unspecified foreign land, she takes her in as an ersatz child, much to Silver’s dismay. Mara warns Dolores that there’s something about her past that would cause Dolores to renege on the offer. Naturally, she is pregnant (the scene in which Mara recounts being raped is one of the play’s most powerful), and after some months the couple must help Mara hide the baby from the authorities.
The story takes a darker turn as uncomfortable truths about Mara are revealed, thanks to those handy surveillance cameras, and the unorthodox family that they have built crumbles. Silver’s book finally comes out, the plot of which is inspired by Mara’s journey from her decaying homeland to his comforting home, but all his efforts seem pointless in the face of humankind’s looming extinction. Silver asks, “Will the world change as a result of my book?” He realizes the answer is no, which makes his small gesture at the end of the play all the more touching. His character has grown, but have the other billions of people on the planet? Of course not. But then, the play is not about them.
The Ruins of Civilization asks us to consider how much to value small gestures of care for living things, especially as we are likely nearing an ecological point of no return. One of the play’s strengths is that it asks this question without claiming that such gestures are either futile or salvific. It reminded us of the (apocryphal) story of Martin Luther being asked what he would do if he knew the world would end the next day; he replied that he would plant a tree.
A rare false note in this production was the chemistry between the lead actors. Tim Daly and Rachael Holmes gave robust performances, but it didn’t seem like Silver and Dolores would ever have been a couple. Of course, Silver’s emotional abuse is part of his character, but his utter lack of sensitivity and compassion for Dolores throughout most of the play made us wonder why she would have married him in the first place. If we had seen a little more eros between them, their relationship would have been more plausible. Whether this was the actors’ or director Leah C. Gardiner’s choice is hard to say, but it felt odd nonetheless.
At $30 per ticket, The Ruins of Civilization is one of the best theater deals in New York right now. Skinner’s script is strong, the set design by Neil Patel is masterfully subtle, and the play asks serious, urgent questions without providing pat answers; an earnest theatergoer can’t ask for much more.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s The Ruins of Civilization continues at NY City Center Stage II (131 West 55th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 5.