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The Ruins of Civilization

Penelope Skinner draws a terrifying future with a strong resemblance to the present.

Rachael Holmes (Dolores) and Roxanna Hope (Mara) in Penelope Skinner's The Ruins of Civilization, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, at New York City Center — Stage II.
(© Joan Marcus)

Dystopia has never looked so manicured as in Penelope Skinner's The Ruins of Civilization, a Manhattan Theatre Club world premiere running on New York City Center's Stage II. Society might be in immediate peril — with a broken ecosystem that drowns ancient civilizations, a federal government that outlaws unwed pregnancy, and a wall that's been erected to keep out unwanted immigrants. Nonetheless , the upper crust can pretend all is well as they indulge in their touch-sensor sinks and automated refrigerator doors. Skinner never dates her futuristic world, but considering how familiar both its luxuries and challenges are, fact and fiction could easily converge within the next few generations.

That, perhaps, is the most disconcerting aspect of Skinner's new work, the tone of which may surprise audiences who know the playwright for her R-rated piece The Village Bike, which ran off-Broadway in 2014. Women once again take center stage here, but this time in a world that is almost sterile in its asexuality. A distinguished British author named Silver (Tim Daly) and his younger beautiful wife, Dolores (Rachael Holmes), hardly ever touch as they go through life in their sleek and antiseptic English home (designed by Neil Patel with plenty of right angles, and accentuated by Philip S. Rosenberg's artificially bright lighting).

As directed by Leah C. Gardiner, the environment suggests a technologically advanced future, but with a power dynamic straight out of a 1950s issue of Housewife Magazine. Daly is alternately infuriating and terrifying as Silver. He treats his wife like a helpless puppy dog, doling out condescending commands followed up by a "good girl" if she obeys. Holmes, meanwhile, is tragically convincing as his subservient spouse, conveying utter powerlessness, even through her striking poise and sharp First Lady-like ensembles (designed by Jessica Pabst).

Unlike her husband, Dolores feels some first-class guilt over the pains of the less fortunate and takes to hiding her foolishly altruistic deeds (including feeding stray cats, which society has downgraded to rodent status). Still, all it takes is a proverbial smack on the nose to put her back in line — not to mention periodic visits from a government employee named Joy (a box-checking Orlagh Cassidy). She represents the Government Initiative to Preserve and Maintain Resources for British Citizens. They pay Silver a stipend as he writes his book, but in order for him to maintain eligibility, Dolores must prove that she has no desire or plans to have a baby, and holds no delusions that her hypothetical child could be "The Solution" to the globe's ailments .

It's a slow grind through Act 1 as Skinner lays all of this groundwork, but it eventually builds to a compelling story that is centered around Mara (beautifully played by Roxanna Hope), a poor Italian immigrant who makes ends meet as a masseuse. Silver and Dolores have just returned from a trip to Rome, which is nearly destitute and soon to be completely underwater, though it still boasts its beautiful ancient ruins. Silver plans to write his next book about the place, while Dolores feels compelled to save it, particularly after willfully ignoring so many dying animals and children throughout the trip. When Mara (who Dolores casually meets at the supermarket) ends up needing a place to stay, Dolores is overjoyed to make the stranger her next guilt-purging project.

As Mara, Hope adds gripping emotion to the laundry list of news-making issues that Skinner gives her character the responsibility to convey. Callous immigration policies, federal restrictions on privacy, and a broadening wage gap that precludes the possibility of equal opportunity are all implicated as Mara begins to drown right alongside her homeland.

There are moments when Mara feels more like a social-justice thought experiment than a character in her own right. However, Skinner finds the ideal balance between the two in an 11 o'clock confrontation between the foreign protagonist and Silver. Real life rarely affords such an eloquent face-off between the castes — and this one is particularly satisfying as Mara picks apart the functionality of moral law when applied to a society that has been rigged. It's an argument that may not get much play on the right side of the aisle, but it's a valuable voice to add to the mix — particularly in an election year that often feels like a work of dystopian fiction itself .