At its core, R. Hamilton Wright’s play Greensward reminds us that we are a nation of lawns. From tiny, manicured cubes in Queens to undulating Monterey fairways, Americans are obsessed with, and tormented by, the need to create and tame green landscapes. It’s in our pioneer genes, regardless of when we arrived here, because America is all about spaces and the need to conquer and then control them — even if we’re only talking about an overgrown backyard. Americans practice a kind of manifest destiny with grass: We look at a vacant lot and see the existential challenge of the prairie; every inch of backyard that we rototill and seed is a psychic push west. Greensward, a Circus Theatricals production running at the Hayworth Theater, is a giddy, if uneven, lesson in what happens when the grass ideal is tampered with.
Doctor Timothy Hay (Adam Paul) is a government scientist toiling away in an aggie bureaucracy called the Federal Erosion Control Research Project. Momentarily yanked out of the lab to justify his agency’s existence, Hay blurts out to some pork-cutting senators that he’s perfected a strain of lawn grass that “never needs to be watered, fertilized or mowed.” His experimental hybrid is dubbed, with a glance back to Camelot, “PT-109”; more important, it’s a drought-resistant grass that can thrive in deserts and maintain the level height of a Marine drill sergeant’s flattop year-round. PT-109 immediately earns the gratitude of a nation eager to be emancipated from the addictive drudgery of lawn care — while drawing the anxious attention of the financial interests dependent on that dependency.
Dr. Hay is quickly hooked up with a cynical handler named April Brome (Jennifer Lee Taylor), who guides him through a roundelay of photo shoots, media interviews and publicity stunts. When April’s not baby-sitting him, the botanist is visited by the sinister Kemp (John Ross Clark). A representative of powerful agrarian and lawn-product interests, Kemp offers millions to Hay to scuttle his project.
“They want to feed the world,” Kemp says of his bosses. “They don’t want the world to feed itself.”
When Hay declines the payoff, Kemp reminds him that his associate, the menacing Lothar (Jerry Lloyd), is the bribe’s painful alternative. Rounding out Hay’s newfound enemies is Flora Sequoia (Barbara Lee Bragg), an angry earth-mother activist who broadcasts a radio show from high atop her tree house. A surly mix of Amy Goodman and Julia Butterfly Hill, Sequoia hates PT-109 because, to her thinking, it represents phallic, corporate science once more screwing nature.
Wright’s comedy is a variant of the Man in the White Suit genre of economic fable, in which a beneficial scientific invention breeds universal unhappiness. In these tales, a well-intentioned soul invents a perpetual-motion machine or some fabric that never needs washing, but soon finds himself facing the wrath of big business, big labor and, finally, big government, because such inventions will shut down industries and throw too many people out of work. These stories play on both the Achilles’ heel of surplus capitalism (products must be made, consumed and junked, whether we need them or not) and the widespread public suspicion that great discoveries are being suppressed by powerful interests. (The million-hour light bulb or, more topically, the electric car, whose efficiency threatens automotive and petroleum companies.)
Greensward’s main problem is that Wright can’t stay on message. Instead of exploring the relationships between the many social forces that his satire sets up, he’s content to caricature them for easy laughs. This becomes painfully clear when he places Act 2 in that burlesque house of all cheap comedy, the French Embassy. At a party there, Dr. Hay meets T. Scott Jacobsen (played by Eric Pierpoint; the “T” in Jacobsen’s name, which is actually three lawn-product brands, is for “Toro”), a Texas tycoon who has a small lawn growing from his scalp. What should be a clever but disposable sight gag devolves into a tedious vaudeville of jokes about trimming and weeding Jacobsen’s head, along with the toll its lawn chemicals are taking on his sanity.
Likewise, up to this point, Wright has wasted far too much time making film references (sometimes explaining them for our benefit) and putting in hackneyed scenes about “Hollywood,” dropping celebrity names and sending Dr. Hay to the Golden Globe Awards. This kind of shtick, like the overlong scene with T. Scott Jacobsen, gets audiences to laugh but not to think, and what begins as a fable winds up as a lightly politicized circus.
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This is a shame, because Wright could have developed his story into a deeper examination of scientific idealism and commercial greed — a kind of ecological View of the Dome. Woven into the story are Wright’s erudite observations, channeled through Dr. Hay, about Americans’ relationship to their lawns and about the vast family of grasses that includes bamboo and corn. (One hilarious detour, explaining what Hay calls the “Savannah syndrome,” posits that man began to cut tall grass to deprive saber-toothed tigers of protective covering.) Dr. Hay occasionally breaks away from the narrative to recall a boyhood tragedy that began when his parents left him in charge of their lawn while they were away on vacation. The rest of the play, which began, wryly enough, with the blare of Fanfare for the Common Man, doesn’t share this somber tone, and instead becomes a circular tour of sketches and one-liners.
Director Richard Ziman has put together a stripped-down but attractive showcase for Greensward, which is receiving its world premiere here. Set designer Kitty Rose’s spare black stage is dominated by poster-size, upstage photographs of a microscope, a redwood tree, the Capitol and a house with a big lawn; these visualized themes never let us forget the forces in motion while leaving plenty of room for the cast to move about. Similarly, Rose’s costuming efforts are low-keyed but deftly articulate their characters’ personalities.
The ensemble, several of whose members play multiple roles, mostly deliver performances adequate for an evening of sketch comedy, but lack the intensity necessary to elevate Greensward to a more ambitious level of theater. Paul chooses to play Dr. Hay too passively to be a dreamer out of his depth, which doesn’t work with this underwritten lead role. One plus is Lloyd’s turn as the corporate enforcer Lothar; while physically no shtarker, he projects an intimidating presence, and, unlike his other characters, Wright gives him a moment of decision that feels genuine. Then again, Ziman also puts Lloyd in the role of the French ambassador, dialing the subtlety level of his portrayal to “Inspector Clouseau.” This may induce a few chuckles but overall makes Act 2 feel like we’re watching paint dry — or grass grow.?
GREENSWARD | By R. HAMILTON WRIGHT | At Circus Theatricals Studio Theater at the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through August 12 | (323) 960-1054