CAMBRIDGE — The initials in the title of Eve Ensler’s new play stand for “Obsessive Political Correctness,” and that might make you expect a spoofy satire. But in fact Ensler is deadly serious about world waste. So is the American Repertory Theater, which is giving “O.P.C.” its world premiere. The set for this production was built from what the ART describes as “recycled, found, and trashed materials.” The costume “fabrics” include plastic garbage bags, plastic straws, candy wrappers, and newspaper. The lobby of the Loeb Drama Center is featuring art made from “trash.” And the ART, noting that it turns out some 140,000 programs and guides each year, has decided not to print a program for this production.
Of course, the audiences in Shakespeare’s time seem to have managed without programs. And it’s clear from the get-go that there’s a disjunct between Smith Weil (Kate Mulligan), a district attorney who’s running for the Senate, and her daughter Romi (Olivia Thirlby), a “freegan” who squats in an abandoned apartment and salvages food from dumpsters. Smith is a liberal who wants to improve the patriarchal, racist, capitalist society she lives in. Romi is holding out for a radical reassessment. She’s appalled not just at the amount of stuff we throw away but at the amount of perfectly good stuff, including edible food.
Brett J. Banakis’s set certainly provides food for sobering thought. The back wall is a jumble of cardboard grocery boxes and wooden shipping pallets. Water bottles adorn the ceiling — it’s estimated that Americans trash 50 million plastic bottles a day. Dumpsters abound; there’s a shopping cart and a clothesline with abandoned gloves and mittens and an overturned mail tub. The whole thing, including the tiny pink flamingo and Barbie dolls, looks like the kind of antiques shop where nothing is worth more than $5. It’s fantastically detailed, and one of the most beautiful sets I’ve seen in 30 years of attending ART productions at the Loeb.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Ensler’s script. She’s written a morality tale that invites the audience to congratulate itself for being on the right side. There’s the potential here for a drama, or at least a black comedy, about working through the system (with the attendant perks) versus abandoning it altogether. But “O.P.C.” doesn’t allow the system to make any plausible arguments — to point out, for example, that for all her complaints about the evils of consumption, Romi consumes without producing. It’s not so much a play as a polemic.
The wrong side starts with Smith. Mulligan took this role at short notice, after the actress who was originally cast, Oscar winner Melissa Leo, left the production. Ensler said that she and Leo “were unable to agree on the direction of the character.”
It’s understandable that an actress might be less than thrilled with Smith. She’s obsessed with what she calls “the biggest adventure of my life,” and she can’t understand why Romi’s not on board. Yet her campaign slogan — “Winning the future, together” — is a platitude. She thinks that as a junior senator she can make a difference, but she has no apparent experience and no new ideas.
That leaves Romi as the bearer of truth. Thirlby is a winning performer, whether she’s rooting through dumpsters, creating “Fruit Skin” dresses, having sex with her freegan ally Damien (Peter Porte), or getting her heart massaged by another freegan, Prakash (Babak Tafti), after Damien is wooed away by the lure of capitalism and the campaign. She has a great scene when she herself is seduced by a pair of Prada boots. But Romi can be preachy, and there’s not much to the character apart from her lifestyle.
The acting itself is fine. Michael T. Weiss’s Bruce is a supportive husband to Smith and an understanding father to Romi. As Romi’s Katie Couric–coiffed younger sister, Kansas, who seems to be their mom’s campaign manager, Nicole Lowrance has a darkly funny tirade about how she got her name. Playing TV-show hosts (among other characters), Nancy Linehan Charles does a mean Barbara Walters, and Liz Mikel seems to be channeling Oprah. But Mulligan’s hard-edged Smith puts a negative spin on “O.P.C.” It’s not that Ensler’s heart isn’t in the right place, only that a more light-hearted, and even-handed, approach would make for a better play.