From its opening moments it's clear that Jason Grote's Civilization (all you can eat) (through June 25) aims to shock and unsettle. After a brief prologue that begins, "We have gained control over nature to such an extent that we would have no difficulty exterminating each other to the last," we meet Big Hog (Tony Torn), a grotesque and intermittently wise porcine demon with Animal Farm aspirations. The jarring movements between his progress and the realist plots of desperation and depression that it punctuates yield very mixed results.
Certainly, Grote's fractured, multi-strand drama—where characters introduced within a few scenarios gradually turn out to be more or less closely connected—seems more ambitious than the previous two plays in Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks 2011 play festival, Enfrascada and Our Lot. Both those, despite some supernatural moments, remained grounded in very naturalistic, very funny yet harsh realism. Here, everyday scenes and small-scale disasters alternate with stylized dance (choreographed by Dan Safer) and Big Hog's escape from a factory farm, for an intentionally disorienting effect that at one moment engages the audience and the next very deliberately distances us. This technique may have proven more successful if the non-Big Hog scenes were not so often overly familiar.
Some, admittedly, are excellent. Two monologues stand out, for instance, one by mediocre chaos theory-bastardizing academic-turned-motivational speaker Mike (Jeff Biehl), the other by the supposedly suicidal actor David (Andres Munar), who reveals to loved ones and strangers during a stand-up routine that his apparent attempt to kill himself was just a session of autoerotic asphyxiation gone very wrong. Both characters begin their respective speeches surefooted, only to be knocked off-track by a Freudian slip and an unexpected audience reaction. Biehl and Munar are both hilarious, but manage to cut their humor with sharp turns towards the dramatic.
Less agile or unpredictable is the mother-daughter plot between Mike's sister Carol (Elizabeth Rich) and her live-at-home college grad daughter Jade (Reyna de Courcy). With their home on the brink of repossession, Jade escapes with her nogoodnik, homemade porn-peddling boyfriend despite her frayed mother's pleading. That narrative strands ends (almost) exactly as one expects it to, and both powerful actresses appear under-used in it.
Meanwhile Mike's wife Zoe (Melle Powers), a struggling filmmaker, is stuck doing a series of idiotic and wildly viral commercials in which founding fathers threaten to bitch slap each other over Twix bars. These often-cited and -overheard ads are another connective plot point between these characters, though Zoe's attempts to move past them are among Civilization's lesser scenes. Perhaps the most ill-fitting character—Big Hog aside—remains one the strongest throughout: Karen (Melissa Miller), a struggling actress and an old friend of Zoe's with very zen and completely earnest ideas about the world's dire lack of love. Miler's a live wire in scenes with Biehl and Munar, at once aloof and intense, hilarious but with potentially dangerous or selfish intentions (despite Karen's professed desire to share her bounty of love with the world). There are more than a few such scenes of tense, twisted insight, but lesser plots and lackluster choreographed interludes fail to enrich this stylized comedy about our self-cannibalizing civilization.
Civilization (all you can eat) continues at HERE Arts Center through Saturday night and is the final show in Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks 2011 festival of new plays. Read our reviews of the festival's first two plays: Enfrascada and Our Lot.