Hurricane Diane packs a lot into its 90-minute running time. It’s the type of idea-driven play that in lesser hands might become more academic journal article than piece of theater, but writer Madeleine George and director Leigh Silverman have crafted the evening with a deceptively light touch. Not since Dr. Strangelove has humanity’s inevitable annihilation been such a good time.
The crisis here, however, is environmental. Diane (Becca Blackwell) is really Dionysus, out of favor with mortals these days but willing to give us one last shot before total ecological collapse takes hold. Diane’s motives are more than a little self-serving, though; she only really wants to save the Earth so she doesn’t have to be stuck on Mount Olympus which is, she tells us, “the dullest fucking place in the universe.” Besides, she adds, “it’s going to feel amazing to save the world.”
But first she needs four submissive acolytes to create a “mystery cult” that will initiate the new age of peace and harmony, and what better place to find submissive women than suburban New Jersey, right? Well, maybe Diane should have watched The Sopranos or The Real Housewives. Posing as a landscape designer, she bites off more than she can chew by insinuating herself into the lives of four friends living in the same cul-de-sac. Their lives are so similar, in fact, that each one’s house is represented by the same farmhouse-sink-and-French-door kitchen on scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s set. The columns on either side of the doors both nod to the story’s Greek origins (going back at least 2,400 years to Euripides’ The Bacchae) and firmly locate us in the land that taste forgot.
Diane’s first and greatest challenge is Carol (Mia Barron), whose only joy is her nightly reading of HGTV Magazine, perhaps the greatest symbol of American culture’s hollow heart in all of contemporary theater. The magazine allows her to daydream about the perfect yard, “natural but neat, special but typical.” She’s not interested in the biodiverse permaculture paradise Diane envisions, but friends Renee (Michelle Beck), Pam (Danielle Skraastad), and Beth (Kate Wetherhead) are more easily seduced. As the play progresses, Carol reveals herself to be more than she initially seems; her intransigent shallowness may become destructive, but she wants what she wants, the world be damned. Literally.
Barron and Skraastad are the standouts in a strong cast, turning the low-hanging fruit of New Jersey housewife clichés into something darker and more affecting. If Pam is the comic relief and Carol is the primary antagonist, Renee is the play’s heart. Her African-American identity is not incidental; it’s given her insight the other “girls” don’t have. Her exchange with Diane late in the play sums up George’s central concern with markers of identity. An old lover once told Renee that “there are only two ways to live: in your truth, or as a coward.” “In my experience,” Diane responds, “it’s hard to move in the world if you don’t show people all of who you are.” Renee’s answer: “In my experience, it’s extremely easy.” One of Hurricane Diane’s great strengths is its understanding that these issues of identity at the core of the American character are not only complex, but likely insoluble.
Of course, as the play makes clear, we’re probably all screwed anyway. In concert with Barbara Samuels’ lights, Bray Poor’s sound, and The Bengsons’ music, Silverman’s unostentatious staging also reveals itself to be more than it seems, rising to meet George’s baroque climax with a ferocity straight out of ancient Athens. After the storm, Diane’s lopsided cult becomes a sort of Greek chorus, lamenting so much unnecessary, irreversible loss:
Oh how shall we praise
the tender things we’ve slain?
Already we’re forgetting
Their many names…
It’s a bleak vision for humanity, especially when, as Pam earlier points out, “there’s always a storm brewing somewhere these days.” Hurricane Diane is as funny as it is terrifying; if there’s nothing to be done, George seems to be saying, let’s at least go down laughing. “Pray if you want to, those of you who survive,” Diane rasps as she departs. Mount Olympus may be the dullest place in the universe, but at least there won’t be any self-destructive humans there to contend with.
Madeleine George’s Hurricane Diane plays through March 24 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and some Sundays and at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets and information, visit nytw.org.