Among people of a certain age I've spoken with recently, let's say 45 and older, there's this sense — not so much a perception or even an intuition, rather a more vague tingle — that something is going numb.
This is not a physical sensation but a spiritual one. It has to do with having lived through an age in which the values of our culture included the promise, and the premise, that things were advancing, and would continue to do so.
Novelists and political commentators used to call it American Optimism.
Now, however, these people of a certain age are seeing their parents struck down with cataclysmic illnesses. Of course, this happens to every generation, but when it's accompanied by what has been the steady erosion of both financial opportunity and security in old age, by the evisceration of living-wage jobs and pensions, by the unmitigated corruption of our democratic institutions, by the intrusions of government into our private lives as though we've crash-landed inside the Soviet Union, by the kind of man-made climate change that is, in all likelihood, a more dire threat to our civilization than chemical weapons or nuclear war ever posed, there eventually emerges among people of a certain age this tingle, this numbing.
These are people who recognize the changes, and who can't convince themselves that the benefits of these changes — and there are many, mostly technological — outweigh the losses. This is largely related to the perception that our culture is freefalling into the kind of chaos that leads to this tingle, this entropy that lingers far beyond rage, somewhere between sadness and tragedy.
How does a play get to the heart of all this? I don't quite know, except to say that Jason Grote's new work, Civilization (All You Can Eat), at Son of Semele Ensemble through the end of this month, does just that.
It is a satire and at times very funny, but I believe it's about as melancholy a comedy as any play by Chekhov, whose works also somehow, remarkably, captured the heart of a changing era through the minutiae of human interactions.
Like Chekhov, Grote writes about desperation and unrequited love, but there's nothing buttoned up about it. There are no waistcoats or samovars, though Grote's characters are quite aware of their social stations. Chekhov's are locked into their stations, while Grote's are struggling, mostly in vain, to rise above them. That is the American promise, and premise, after all. But instead of rising, they're floundering in their personal and professional lives in the lead-up to the economic crash of 2008.
These people include a single mother (Laura Carson), woefully bonded to her estranged daughter (Mary Quick), who runs away with a porn producer. There's also a would-be filmmaker (Inger Tudor) and an actor (Peter James Smith) with a conscience (good luck, in this play!), and a beautiful, gentle yet obscenely ambitious actress (Sarah Rosenberg), whose loftiest ambition is to star in her own reality TV show. The would-be filmmaker is married to a former full-time professor (Dan Via) who got laid off and now is freelancing as a consultant for businesses. He offers an excruciating seminar entitled “Making Chaos Work,” which he clearly doesn't believe himself. This idea, and its futility, is the crux of Grote's satire.
Oh, yes, there's also a hog (Alexander Wells), who opens the play with a fairly long soliloquy about life as a hog, and life in general. He squeals when he feels like it, and he speaks with what might be called a constricted poeticism — imagine Walt Whitman having never left the barnyard. Since the financial markets are about to crash because of unfettered greed, the presence of Big Hog, as an allegory, offers an homage to George Orwell's Animal Farm, presented by this same company many years ago in an adaptation by Peter Hall.
Big Hog ruminates about big things, from his small vantage. In the next scene, people are arguing about principles they think are large, but they do so in a petty way. We're on a TV set where would-be filmmaker Zoe (Tudor) is directing a commercial for Twix candy, featuring George Washington (Quick) and Thomas Jefferson (Smith). It's a burlesque, and the actor playing Jefferson (Smith appears to be Filipino) resents having to serve up a vulgar racist parody of a black rapper.
The commercial's producers think the parody will fly, the actor playing Jefferson finds it offensive, and Zoe has to warn him that — in that oh-so-petty way — that there are other actors waiting in line to replace him.
But this isn't a play about racism, or power dynamics in Hollywood. Entertainment is just one cog in the much larger profit machine, which shreds the human dignity of everyone it touches. And when we finally meet the freelance seminarist (everybody's freelance and grasping at branches in Grote's world) and his difficult marriage to Zoe, that aforementioned tingle comes across.
It's never summarized in somebody's telling line within the play. It's a feeling that accrues from the stage, just as it does in life, that some cosmic entity offered a bargain to each of these characters, and that entity has now reneged.
This very delicate play would not have worked if not for Don Boughton's tender direction, which aims to reveal fragments of the characters' dissipating humanity.
Scene transitions are awkward, when the very good actors have to haul furniture on and off the stage, but such clumsiness isn't dire enough to sabotage the larger vision behind Grote's play. It's the kind of comedy during which you find yourself unable to laugh — which is entirely as it should be.
CIVILIZATION (ALL YOU CAN EAT) | By Jason Grote | Presented by Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Blvd., E. Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Nov. 10 | sonofsemele.org