“Shipwreck” it is called, and it’s the U.S. premiere of a play of ideas on a Shavian scale, which is a good thing. But it’s also a protracted evening during which the ideas all crash into one another, as if they’ve been sent sliding down an icy interstate and end up in a 52-car pileup. I have a high tolerance for ambitious pieces of this sort, especially by a dramatist of the exalted imaginative caliber of Washburn, author of “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play,” one of the most blissfully ingenious works of theater of the young 21st century.
Even with some forbearance, though, one has to conclude that “Shipwreck” — directed with aplomb by Saheem Ali and played all-out by a strong eight-member cast — is like the era we are living through: too much with us. The completion of the surfeit of words and conceits in this 3-hour-15-minute journey is a relief. Maybe that’s the point: Examining where we are and where we have come from has to constitute a taxing commitment, a fatiguing exercise in paradox and digression. When it comes to stories of the American project, there is and always will be too much to tell.
As this is a Washburn joint, let me also observe that there are plenty of sharp moments and beautiful passages, some even meriting their own spontaneous spasms of applause. One of these for me is a scene she conjures of a past meeting in some fantasy incarnation of Trump Tower between then-president George W. Bush (played by the superlative Mikéah Ernest Jennings) and a civilian Donald Trump (an intrepid Jeff Biehl). Here we encounter a Trump of dignified bearing and sober insight (the Trump, it’s suggested, of his own imagination) as another Republican leader prepares to lead the nation into an ill-conceived military conflict. The pacifist counsel of Biehl’s Trump is so wise and commanding that an audience laughs — a reaction by turns wistful and uncomfortable and run through with “if only . . .”
The play is a reckoning with where America found itself in 2017 — marooned, as it were, in a storm. Five friends of Jools (Anna Ishida) and Lawrence (James Whalen) come to dinner in the tasteful, converted farmhouse they’ve bought that dates to, ahem, 1776. Far off in the nation’s capital, the crises are rolling off the Trump assembly line: The scandal of the moment is the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. The familiar debates of our time rage as the snow falls, the food runs out and the electricity falters. Neither the dinner party nor the country, it seems, is prepared for what’s coming.
Stranded, the partygoers are revealed to be a cross-section of the beleaguered left, from the ultra-woke left (in the guise of sublimely sputtering Jennifer Dundas) to the materially comfy, conflicted left, represented by Jon Hudson Odom’s gay lawyer Louis. A thread of Agatha Christie suffuses the cross-talk, as one of the dinner’s participants confesses, in the glow of late-in-the-night candlelight, to a shocking act. I’ll leave the details for the paying customers; all that will be disclosed here is that the evening’s most gripping statement is “I voted for him.”
The layers of “Shipwreck” encompass what amounts to a parallel narrative, recited mostly by Jennings’s Mark, about a Kenyan boy adopted by a white couple; the tale of Mark’s own coming of age is itself involved and twisty and speaks to a nation confused about whom it nurtures, and how. (Significantly, he’s not at the party.) The language Washburn employs in Mark’s monologues is lyrical and seems intended to convey the profound level on which she wants us to understand him. She also comes up with a way to embed Mark’s account in the story of the farmhouse, but given the level of wit of which she’s ordinarily capable, the device comes across as a cheat.
Set designer Arnulfo Maldonado — in concert with Jared Mezzocchi on projections, Colin K. Bills on lighting and Dede Ayite on costumes — devises a striking look for “Shipwreck,” a co-production with New York’s Public Theater. (The dinner in the old house has nothing on the demimonde repast Trump serves up here for Comey.) As vocal guests in the farmhouse, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan and Tom Story excel along with their castmates.
You empathize on this occasion with Jennings’s wholly embraceable Mark, but even more so with a playwright struggling to contain all of her thoughts about this utterly confounding juncture for our democracy. It’s hard for anyone these days to know which way to turn, and alas, sometimes neither does “Shipwreck.”
Shipwreck, by Anne Washburn. Directed by Saheem Ali. Sound, Palmer Hefferan. About 3 hours 15 minutes. $20-$90. Through March 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. woollymammoth.net.