Cape Cod Times: Ensler's 'O.P.C.' strikes just the right balance

Publication date: 
December 9, 2014
Author: 
Jim Sullivan

CAMBRIDGE - The world premiere of Eve Ensler’s play “O.P.C.” at the American Repertory Theatre’s Loeb Drama Center is billed as a comedy, but I confess my fear going into the 2½-hour (including intermission) production was that it might be more of a take-your-medicine-as-prescribed proposition.

Why? “O.P.C.” stands for Obsessive Political Correctness, and the last two words always bring a slight tremor. The woman who was set to co-star, Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, was by far the best-known actor in the cast, and she backed out late in the game owing to “artistic differences” with Ensler. In an interview with the Cape Cod Times last month, Ensler, writer of “The Vagina Monologues,” defined her life as being very much about political activism, adding “I think the life of an activist is an amazing life.”

And we knew this: That the two main characters, young radical freegan Romi (Olivia Thirlby) and her liberal, Senate-contesting mother, Smith (Kate Mulligan, replacing Leo), would be fighting about doing the right thing. What’s the better choice? Working within the system or abandoning the system altogether and going off the grid? As the battle on the left looms, the potential for didacticism and unbridled agitprop looms.

Not to worry. Sure, there are preachy moments, but for the most part Ensler finds the tricky balance between drama and comedy, between making some serious points and inducing some genuine laughs. The actors, main and supporting, nail it. The characters, while exaggerated at times, are not caricatures, and all of them evolve their positions over the course of the play.

When we meet Romi, the anti-consuming squatter, she is extolling the virtues of dumpster diving and trying to serve her visiting mother “adopted tomatoes,” doing a video podcast called “Waste Not, Want Not.” Smith is running for Senate, hoping her Harvard dropout daughter will not embarrass the campaign by extolling the pleasures of garbage. Or not yet garbage – just food past its official expiration date.

Romi makes a strong case for her virulent stance. “We crave new. What is new? New is shiny, unspoiled, virgin … The secret about new – it gets old very fast.” Smith, at another point, says what Romi does most is induce guilt in everyone else. “Romi needs to wake up!” Smith’s husband, Bruce (Michael T. Weiss), counters, “Romi’s just asking us to pay attention.”

Romi’s life is changed when she meets the apparently punky (but secretively corporate) Damien (Peter Porte). She falls in lust and, through his machinations inadvertently becomes a hip dress designer with her recycled “Fruit Skin” apparel. OK, it’s a stretch. Success comes calling, but, no surprise, having money and a large loft her father bought for her does not sit well or bode well for the future.

Act 2 begins with Romi’s sensible sister, Kansas (Nicole Lowrence), and her parents in the lobby of mental hospital – oops, a “healing facility.” Romi is somewhere in its bowels having been diagnosed with Obsessive Political Correctness. It’s a fake disease, but not so far-fetched. This compulsive need to do the right thing – as the disembodied, unseen female voice of the hospital psychiatrist explains – shows up mainly in “highly intelligent young women,” and the “patients reject the diagnosis.”

Indeed, Romi says, “I’m not unhappy in my unhappiness.” But she does find a kindred soul and a bit of solace with Prakash (Babek Tafti), who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

This is serious stuff Ensler and director Pasha Rudnick are dealing with here, but they are happy to steer into the funny zone often enough, with some of the best lines delivered by the supporting players. Mikel and Nancy Linehan Charles juggle several characters and, respectively, pull off superb Oprah and Barbara Walters-type TV talk show host parodies. For the Oprah character, named P, it’s really all about feel-good self-aggrandizement. For the Walters character, named Joan, it’s all about fake earnestness and a relentless speech impediment: “You’re twailing,” she tells candidate Smith, “but in the polls it’s a close vote. Is it twue?”

For us in the audience, at the heart of “O.P.C.” is this: You’re forced to reconsider consumption and not just conspicuous consumption: How much can you really enjoy yourself – the products you buy, the choices you make – when you’re aware of their potential negative impact? And then there’s the larger issue that hovers: If human-enhanced climate change hastens the end of the world as we know it, none of that will matter anyway.

The designers have created a colorful, splendiferous set that is composed of discarded and recycled objects – including thousands of plastic bottles that are strung over the stage and audience. Various video screens bring TV and Internet podcasts to bright life.

Various bits of punk rock songs punctuate the short down-time between scenes, giving the play an urgent kick in the pants. There is a lot of dialogue, and the music helps pick up the pace. And at the end, Joey Ramone’s version of “What a Wonderful World” blares optimistically as everyone searches for common ground.

 

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