PROVIDENCE — Zombies and vampires and dread, oh my.
The post-apocalyptic chiller-thriller is the hottest genre around, and playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury joins the gorefest with “Social Creatures,’’ now receiving its world premiere at Trinity Repertory Company.
It’s a diverting but ultimately disappointing effort, principally because “Social Creatures’’ breaks so little new ground in its depiction of the infighting, power struggles, identity crises, and meltdown of social norms that ensue as a small band of survivors tries to stave off death at the hands — and teeth — of whatever is Out There. (And, eventually, In Here.)
Commissioned by Trinity Rep and expertly helmed by its artistic director, Curt Columbus, this 90-minute, one-act play takes place in a city that appears to be Providence, to judge by the geographic references in the script. And its ramshackle setting, designed by Eugene Lee with his usual no-detail-is-too-small artistry, is a theater that appears to be Trinity Rep itself.
The survivors have taken refuge in the theater after a deadly international pandemic has spawned hordes of hungry flesh-eaters who also have a thirst for blood. Not a bad setup for a psychological nail-biter, but the fundamental group dynamics carry echoes of too many other end-of-the-world scenarios, going back at least as far as Nevil Shute’s 1957 postnuclear novel, “On the Beach.’’
The character types in “Social Creatures’’ are sketched along predictable lines: the tyrannical control freak, well played by D’Arcy Dersham, who kindles resentment by bossing everyone else around and zealously keeping track of every can of food; the cranky-but-sage oldster, portrayed by Trinity Rep stalwart Timothy Crowe in baseball cap, black rubber boots, and bathrobe (costumes are by Olivera Gajic); the weasely trimmer (Alexander Platt) who seems to have misplaced his moral compass but faces life-or-death challenges in his strange new circumstances.
The internal and external struggle the characters face — between holding onto humanity and succumbing to feral behavior — will feel awfully familiar to anyone who has read “Lord of the Flies,’’ turned on a TV set in the past couple of years (“The Walking Dead’’ et al.), or been to the movies (“The Hunger Games’’ et al.).
So the problem Sibblies Drury confronts is one of, you should pardon the expression, overkill. Her considerable talent for seriocomic invention does not overcome that obstacle. But the playwright does introduce one fresh angle: race. An African-American survivor, played by Darien Battle, staggers into the theater midway through the play, and is promptly quarantined by the others, who believe he is infected. It’s a resonant image: A black man, his belongings taken from him, is imprisoned by whites, yet is still determined to make his voice heard.
He tells the others of a theory that was making the rounds, that the outbreak of crazed violence that doomed civilization was not caused by a virus at all, but rather by “white people going crazy . . . They were so used to getting whatever they want, you know, getting so much in this world, that they just wanted to do whatever they wanted all the time.’’ But this intriguing notion of white entitlement as a world-destroying force is not further developed by Sibblies Drury, who explored racial conflict in her recent New York success, the cumbersomely titled “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.”
To underscore how cut off the people of “Social Creatures” are from the world they once knew and the selves they once were, they go by generic pseudonyms: Mr. and Mrs. Jones (Platt and Dersham), Mrs. Smith (Rebecca Gibel), Mr. Johnson (Crowe), Mrs. Wilson (Janice Duclos), and Mrs. Williams (Nance Williamson). Mrs. Jones calls Battle’s character Mr. Brown, insisting she chose the name because it’s “easy to remember.’’
One by one throughout “Social Creatures,’’ the survivors step out of the action to record their life stories on video, rambling uncertainly as they try to leave something behind for posterity. (The video design is by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, who also handles the sound design.) There is one person missing from the picture: Mrs. Smith’s husband, who disappears at the beginning of the play. Her increasingly bizarre behavior starts to worry the others. Is she deranged by grief, or is there something else going on? Gibel has fun in the ambiguous space in between, playing Mrs. Smith as a blend of Ophelia (in the mad scene) and Carrie (in the prom scene).
It all culminates in an uproariously bloody episode that is both the high point of “Social Creatures’’ and the cause of a distinct pang, because it so vividly captures the blend of horror and comedy that appears to have been Sibblies Drury’s aim, but that she’s only fitfully realized in the rest of her play.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.