Well, kids, sorry to tell you, but the future here in the homeland doesn’t look like much fun. Floods, civil wars, invasions by foreign powers, stonings, beheadings. And, oh, yeah, zombies in the president’s basement.
And wouldn’t you know it, even the zombies are downers, at least as they’re portrayed in “Zombie: The American,” the frustrating muddle of a black comedy receiving its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
The play, by Robert O’Hara — author of the far more inspired “Bootycandy,” which started at Woolly in 2011 and moved on to wider success — gets so lost in its own conceits that you’d welcome an actor stopping a scene to say: “Wait. What’s the point of this again?” That question certainly occurred to me, as events lurched inexorably toward incoherence.
Some theater pieces manage to detangle their difficult knots; this one’s complications simply become a source of dread, as with those boxes of hopelessly balled-up strands of Christmas tree lights haunting your attic. O’Hara and his director, Howard Shalwitz, cycle through multiple acts of carnage, shady diplomatic doings and pointlessly graphic sex scenes, all leading to a finger-wagging ending about America’s sins. We’ve been bad, you and I. The zombies, it seems, are us.
“Zombie: The American” takes place in the mid-21st century, after the East Coast has been gobbled up by the Atlantic Ocean and the nation’s capital has been moved to Mount Rushmore. There, our first openly gay president (Sean Meehan) lives in a tense and remarkably uninteresting marriage with his husband (James Seol). Only now he’s called Lord President and wears a crown to his inauguration. I’m not sure why, since he still seems to have to run for reelection. He also gets under the skin of his super-prickly secretary of state (Sarah Marshall), who like everyone else — even the clones! — speaks in a vaguely British-y way. This may have something to do with the discovery out West of the greatest mineral of all time, called Cotton XP, that the resurgent British Empire craves.
Also: There’s an insurrection in those Western states. (Cotton . . . civil war . . . British help? Hmmm.) To quell it, the powerful United African Nations has sent in (uninvited) a peacekeeping force, and one of its members is stoned to death. This infuriates the African Nations’ huffy secretary general (Dawn Ursula), who wants to know what the Lord President is going to do about it.
Again, not sure why, but the secretary of state informs the president that there are zombies in the basement and that he should enlist their help. The three zombies “living” there (Tim Getman, Jessica Frances Dukes and Thomas Keegan) preside from a judge’s bench, behind nameplates that identify them as Speaker, Chairwoman and Minority Whip. They insist that upon each visit from upstairs, they must be given a body to eat.
Hey, I’m just reporting here.
This is merely a hypothesis, but perhaps what started as an idea for some possibly promising funny business — a sort of “The Walking Dead” set in the White House — over time became weighted down by an ever-expanding cascade of less workable gags and plot twists. In the process of trying to tie them all together, perspective was lost on what the heck the story was meant to be, and nobody noticed that “Zombie: The American” had decomposed into a hot mess. This is only a guess.
Costume designer Ivania Stack has a grand old time outfitting everyone in zany futuristic get-ups, though the reason the Lord President and first gentleman dress like seedy rock stars is never addressed. The “reveal” of the zombies’ lair, meanwhile, could probably benefit from a hydraulic mechanism that didn’t rise at the speed of an elevator in an assisted living facility.
The actors go through their frantic paces, though it must be said that Meehan can’t do much with a colorless central role. O’Hara has said in interviews that he envisioned the piece as a cross between bloody Jacobean drama and “Dr. Strangelove.” It’s definitely a cross, of some sort.
by Robert O’Hara. Directed by Howard Shalwitz; set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Rumery; video, Aaron Fisher; choreographer, Robb Hunter. With Luigi Sottile. About 2