Eve Ensler's new play, O.P.C., now running in a world-premiere production at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, poses the question "What is garbage?" Ensler, who is a political activist as well as a playwright, delivers an anticonsumerism plea for a more sensible recycling of "stuff" — defined as various commodities that range from food, shelter, clothing, and $4,000, high-heeled Prada boots — that still provides the comforts of modern living.
Ensler (The Vagina Monologues) doesn't stop at harangues about the careless discards of our society. The play also includes an intense subplot about mother-daughter relationships, which calls into question some fundamentals of feminism, and takes glancing blows at the issues of climate change, poverty, and sexual mores. Her characters are outlines of these op-ed concerns, created to develop the semblance of a comedy-drama. Pesha Rudnick directs the work with an in-your-face manner of presentation, calling for actors shouting at one another (and at the audience), speechifying rather than having conversations, and shining the brightest of lights on the action.
The two main characters, diametrically opposed in their thinking and manner of living, are Romi Weil (Olivia Thirlby), a twentysomething single woman who squats rent-free in an abandoned warehouse and embraces the philosophy of "freeganism," and her mother, Smith Weil (Kate Mulligan), a radiant blonde who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in order to make the world a better place, or so she says. Romi lives off the grid, foraging for her food in Dumpsters, and making clothes and furniture out of found objects that have been willfully thrown away. Smith spouts the correct political bromides about education, jobs, and the economy in her aggressive campaign to win, win, win. Her other daughter, Kansas (Nicole Lowrance), is her clone and chief aide. Her husband, Bruce (Michael T. Weiss), appears as a passive but supportive bystander. Damien (Peter Porte), Romi's love interest, is perhaps the most complex of the characters, and the one who transforms the most completely by the end.
Needless to say, Romi's lifestyle is highlighted by the attention of the press, especially an officious TV interviewer (Nancy Linehan Charles, who alternates in a number of roles) and a hilarious takeoff by an Oprah-like announcer (Liz Mikel, also doubling as other characters). Smith is forced to accept daughter Romi's gift of a dress handmade with apricot skins, which was given with love.
The huge success of Romi's "high trashion" style, leads to a turnaround of her fortunes. More opportunities begin to open up for her and as a result of the excess of choice, she suffers a breakdown. Her diagnosis — O.P.C. or Obsessive Political Correctness, which hits at the heart of the play — can only be cured by the most elemental of acts. In the second act, the unraveling of the plot becomes a bit murky, despite a scene of great charm between Romi and Smith when they read to each other from a pornographic novel.
The cast as an ensemble is excellent whenever they are allowed to leave the polemics behind and act as humans. Mulligan softens into a mother, trying to console her daughter; Thirley finds a sense of humor and a way to listen to opinions other than her own by the end. Porte is a presence to remember in portraying a character that is losing the battle between his better instincts and ambition, but Weiss has nothing much to do in a severely underwritten role. Charles as a Barbara Walters-type and Mikel are particularly adept at parody.
The production is enormously enhanced by Brett J. Banakis' set design, constructed of items considered as throwaways, including one three-story rear wall composed totally of cardboard boxes, and another of wooden pallets, with garlands of plastic bottles strung overhead. The donors of the objects range from local manufacturers to neighborhood supermarkets and are credited in the information posted in the lobby — paper programs are not allowed, since they are often among the detritus of an evening in the theater.
One might suggest that staging the world premiere of Ensler's play in Cambridge is a bit like preaching to the converted. But it's hard to believe that this theatergoing crowd will be converging on the neighborhood Dumpsters anytime soon.