Civilization (All You Can Eat)
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
June 21, 2011
In its workshop debut at Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks festival, Jason Grote’s Civilization (All You Can Eat) is an intermittently effective meditation on contemporary America’s overconsumption, and the resultant unease among the population. The play’s characters are detached and drifting, incapable of forming truthful connections because they are all-too-busy chasing the objects of their desire—whether that be security, fame, freedom, or money. The playwright’s intent is clearest when delving into heightened realism, aided immeasurably by the capable direction of Seth Bockley and masterful choreography by Dan Safer. An oddball protagonist and extended movement sequences create fantastic stage pictures that stick with the audience long after the show’s conclusion. Less effective, however, are the domestic drama sequences, which neither drive the story forward nor earn our empathy. The gap between these aesthetics proves hard to reconcile, and deserves renewed focus should this script move forward to full production.
At the center of the play is Big Hog (wonderfully embodied by Tony Torn), an oversized farm animal whose thirst for freedom is only matched by his desire for revenge. Eyeballing the audience from his cramped stall, he promises that one day he will sit at the head of the table while each of us is brought under the knife. He goes on to convey the strange mix of things he’s come to understand by listening to humans, with more than a hint of bloodlust in his eye. He eventually bites open his wrist, attacks the farmer coming to his aid, and escapes into the night.
Separately, we encounter a series of disenchanted characters subduing their better judgment for a shot at their dreams. A director gives a lucrative job to a penniless actor friend, who returns her charity by complaining about the script. A lecturer speaks of controlling chaos, only to lose his composure on stage. An actress openly trades in her friendships to star in a reality TV show, all the while professing that the world’s problems would be solved if only everyone was more generous with their love. While these scenes serve to present a stark vision of our country’s obsessions (circa the 2008 presidential election, Grote takes care to mention), they nonetheless feel insubstantial compared with the fully realized movement sequences occurring between them. Conversations hint at subtext but rarely explore it. Matters of contention are introduced but too easily dropped. It feels more of a coincidence, than an inevitability, that these are the people with whom we are meant to spend our evening.
That is, except for the riveting mother and daughter portrayal between Elizabeth Rich and Reyna de Courcey. Hard times have driven the family to the edge of insanity—namely, their relationship is crumbling, their mortgage is in default, and their only chance at recovery is to sacrifice either one’s dignity or the other’s body. Both Rich and de Courcey craft moving portrayals of women who have yet to find their proper places in the world, and, due to the economic downturn, may never get the chance. Their scenes with (and apart from) one another humanize Grote’s agenda in Civilization (All You Can Eat), which is to reveal the disasters caused by our own overconsumption. If he can manage to combine such deeply cathartic character arcs with the cerebral humor shown throughout, this play might prove to be a real powerhouse in its next incarnation.