If you can't even figure out how to live on Earth, how are you ever going to live on Mars? That question circles around M.J. Kaufman's How to Live on Earth, now receiving its world premiere from Colt Coeur at HERE. The play has an undeniably compelling premise (the settlement of Mars), but its execution leaves much to be desired. It feels more like a pretense for the author to explore the social awkwardness and chronic ennui that marks so much of 21st-century American society.
Through a series of rapid-fire expository scenes, we're introduced to four applicants for a private manned mission to Mars that will be completely televised. Omar (a restless Genesis Oliver) is a gay software engineer. Aggie (the itchy Molly Carden) is an unemployed misfit who sings a song ("I don't belong on Earth") for her introductory video. Eleanor (a guarded Amelia Workman) is a somewhat high-strung librarian whose major selling point is her archival skills: "If everyone up there dies, what will be important is the records." Doctors Without Borders trauma surgeon Bill (Charles Socarides, playing a stealthy underminer) is the most overtly qualified applicant, but he has a prickly competitive edge that can be extremely off-putting. In fact, all of the applicants have personality quirks that would seem to disqualify them from spending a lifetime on an alien planet with 23 other people. As the play progresses Mars becomes less the final frontier and more a disposal bin for Earth's rejects.
If you think this is all science fiction, it's not: How to Live on Earth is inspired by Mars One, an ambitious plan by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp to create the first permanent human settlement on the red planet. Lansdorp intends to finance this mission primarily through advertising revenue from a reality television program that would follow the settlers from their initial training through their eventual deaths (Mars One is a one-way voyage). Essentially, it's an extremely costly and elaborate snuff film.
While the dramatis personae of How to Live on Earth certainly looks suspiciously like a cast for Survivor, Kaufman doesn't spend much time considering the ethical implications of financing space exploration through reality TV. Rather, he focuses on the smaller stuff: the drive to explore the unknown, the insecurities that can hamper those dreams, and the cruelty of abandoning the people who love you when and if you succeed. It should feel deeply personal and resonant, but instead it just feels small.
The one character who really translates her personal angst into something larger is Bill's mom, Carol, and that is thanks largely to an achingly sympathetic performance from Lynne Lipton. "I don't like the other moms," she explains her reluctance to get too involved with the show. "They're bossy show-offs. Pretending the kids are just on a trip. They're not on a trip. They're on a death mission." She speaks these words through a perfunctory Ohio mom smile, barely holding back an ocean of fear and sadness.
As with her critically acclaimed previous efforts, like last season's Dry Land, director Adrienne Campbell-Holt succeeds in creating a natural intimacy through both performances and design. Blaring '80s rock fades into ambient headphone noise in M.L. Dogg's clever sound design. Lianne Arnold's spacy projections give us a sense of the cosmos inside our contestants' heads. Ashley Rose Horton's subtly suggestive contemporary costumes offer little hints about the personalities wearing them (Bill's Eddie Bauer boots and Abercrombie & Fitch necklace are a particularly nice touch).
Unfortunately, it's not enough to pull us into an otherwise soporific script. The frenetic pacing of the early scenes betrays a story that really doesn't go anywhere. Also, some insufficiently distinct double-casting leads to plenty of confusion as the play ambles along. How to Live on Earth may send you home to frantically Google articles on "Mars One," if only to supplement the drama and insanity the stage production desperately lacks.