It’s hard to resist the comedic high spirits of the Altruistic Theatre Company’s new castaway story, though this bare-bones world premiere production of Civilization!, directed by Brock H. Hill, is rather ragged.
That’s appropriate, in a way, as ragged also describes the play’s bedraggled, waterlogged plane crash survivor when he’s picked up off a drifting raft by a crew of American traders (who, to quite amusing effect, pretend to be French in order to get better prices for their wares). Robin, a mild-mannered U.S. Census employee, played by Evan Kincade with sympathy and physical command (if sometimes rushed diction), recounts to the captain (a funny Jake Blagburn) and the snooping first mate (an even funnier Don James) his tale of woe, which plays out in flashback:
Marooned on a tiny island, the plane’s six passengers consciously create a miniature “civilization” of their own—accompanied by a new religion founded by the campy-charismatic William (a swaggering Pete McElligott). Robin refuses to go along, so the other castaways, kowtowing with varying degrees of sincerity to William’s growing megalomania, banish him to the other side of the island, where he alone nourishes the hope of rescue and a threadlike connection to reality, maintained through imagined conversations with his preternaturally centered fiancee back home.
Imagine Gilligan’s Island but with something serious to say about human nature. Clark seems to have cobbled his story together from a variety of antecedents—Lord of the Flies, the Tom Hanks film Cast Away, maybe even Animal Farm; Robin’s very name echoes that of the ur-castaway, Robinson Crusoe, so I don’t think there’s much pretense of originality here. What’s solid about the show is the persistently funny script and the way the cast has a blast twisting and stretching the preposterous story into a rubbery tangle of desert-island drollery.
Amber Bloom slinks it up with gusto as a vampy, sex-starved divorcée, Joseph Garner delights as a nerdy newlywed with violently shifting enthusiasms and loyalties, and so on. Once you accept that you won’t get a sound effect when a foam “rock” is thrown into someone’s head, and that nobody, even after being stranded for months, has messy hair—well, that’s part of the point, and there’s nothing left but to enjoy the romp, ad then ponder what it all meant. As an allegory for human history as a whole, you could do worse than this intense little “civilization.” Yes, the story is about the terrible things we do to each other, but it’s also about the way we can inspire each other, and about the strength one person can find within himself. Most of all, it’s about how we can laugh at the whole ridiculous thing we call civilization (with or without an exclamation point).
Civilization! runs through Jun 26 at the Roy Arias studios in Manhattan. Visit the Altruistic Theatre website for more information and tickets. Proceeds in part benefit World Cares Center, a charity founded after 9/11 to aid and improve responses to emergency and disaster situations.