It takes a tender actress to make a tough pig, and in the unsettling “Civilization (All You Can Eat),” Sarah Marshall lowers herself to the challenge. She’s Big Hog, who starts Jason Grote’s weirdly worth-it new play as just another quadruped marked for slaughter and ends up on two feet, the formidable representative of a money culture in which one can claw and devour one’s way to the very top.
Picking up where Orwell and Ionesco left off, Grote makes the ascendancy of an animal to high social standing one of the narrative pillars of his surrealist exploration of the moral stew of contemporary life. Maybe the questionable hormone treatments our livestock are receiving explains the predatory consciousness Big Hog acquires. “There are places and different kind of places and Big Hog alone will see them,” Marshall grunts in primitive English as she scampers in bulbous, pinkish costume, on all fours.
Or perhaps it’s reducing to absurdity the Horatio Alger story, whereby success now requires the pulling up of oneself by the hoofstraps. By whatever magic Big Hog manages to join the human rat race, however, the effect in this Woolly Mammoth Theatre world premiere is to intentionally leave a sour taste in a spectator’s mouth.
For “Civilization (All You Can Eat)” is a well-constructed satire, thoughtfully orchestrated by director Howard Shalwitz, and designed for an age of ominous indicators. Grote’s America — which he also skewered in his dysfunctional-family comedy at Woolly, “Maria/Stuart” — is a carnival of commercial perversity and hostile xenophobic impulses. It’s a place in which dashing commuters force choking wads of fast food down their gullets, 30-second candy-bar spots are made to pander to ethnic stereotypes and parasitic ex-academics shill for spurious business concepts on the order of “Making Chaos Work for Your Organization.”
The territory Grote covers isn’t revolutionary: You’ve heard the knock on our Darwinian, consumption-crazed way of life many times before. The methods here are richer than the thesis; the playwright’s critique is crisply delivered, and slyly contained in a deceptively random-seeming collection of events. In a scene dramatizing the shooting of the candy-bar commercial in a Colonial America motif, the bitter joke is that the George Washington character, played by Alice Gibson, recites an inadvertently pertinent phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
If anything, “Civilization (All You Can Eat)” seeks to underline how stale that lofty sentiment has become in 2008, the play’s start date. Grote likes to toy with narrative structure, and, akin to the style of his popular “1001” — a take on “The One Thousand and One Nights” — he wraps stories around stories. In this case, the chillingly bizarre tale of Big Hog frames a more naturalistic one, that of a broke waitress (Naomi Jacobson) who’s behind on her mortgage and unable to control her daughter (Casie Platt), a teenager convinced her pot of gold awaits, via stardom in online porn.
The cultural chasm between American haves and have-nots surfaces in”Civilization” when Jacobson’s skillfully drawn Carol visits her better-off brother Mike (Sean Meehan), the “Making Chaos Work” guru, and his wife, Zoe (Tia James), who’s directing the candy-bar commercial. Carol hasn’t figured out how to navigate the etiquette of her brother’s interracial marriage, and as a result of that and her money woes, the dinner she’s been invited to ends in tears.
The disparate subplots of “Civilization” slowly begin to intermingle; Grote displays a delicate hand with coincidence — but maybe anything falls into the category of plausible after you’ve been convinced that a pig can mastermind an escape from an abattoir. (With choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning, Shalwitz also devises interstitial sequences of movement to link the scenes, some more evocative than others.) Marshall, meanwhile, infuses Big Hog with such a resonantly grotesque feral spirit that you’re prone to belief, even when the animal encounters Platt’s teenage runaway in the woods and, shall we say, turns the dinner tables on her.
Costume designer Valerie St. Pierre Smith comes up with a functional and quasi-literal hog suit for Marshall and the other, littler pigs. And set designer Daniel Ettinger’s fine work is highlighted most effectively in the extra-creepy final scene, when Big Hog — sitting down to a fancy meal at a garishly decorated palace of cuisine — has attained mogul status.
Although this final tableau could send us out of Woolly with a bit more oomph, it does succeed at its goal of turning our stomachs. In service of that achievement, “Civilization (All You Can Eat)” can surely be said to go whole hog.
by Jason Grote. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Sets, Daniel Ettinger; costumes, Valerie St. Pierre Smith; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Veronika Vorel; videos, Aaron Fisher; choreography, Diane Coburn Bruning; fight choreography, Joe Isenberg; dramaturg, Miriam Weisfeld. With Daniel Escobar, JaBen Early, Jenna Sokolowski. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Through March 11 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.