In Kate Tarker’s satiric Thunderbodies, America is a relentlessly strange place, where people spout nonsense, act without reason, and are led by the narcissistic man-baby they’ve elected president. To state that the playwright has hit the nail right on the head might sound like a compliment, but it’s not, mostly because Tarker accomplishes this small feat with very little wit and even less insight. Substituting outrageousness for both, she tosses the play down a Rabelaisian rabbit hole, desperately trying to hold on to our attention at the cost of anything that might demand just a little bit more.
Despite the diminishing returns on their efforts, a talented cast gives Tarker and director Lileana Blain-Cruz all that they’ve got, which by the end of the play’s interminable 90 minutes elicits far more sympathy than admiration. Leading the way is the always game Deirdre O’Connell (Terminus, Fulfillment Center) as Grotilde, a haughty layabout who has recently completed her “life’s work of losing the last ten pounds.” Whether this weight loss is the culmination of a larger battle against obesity or just the shedding of some vanity pounds is a mystery that, for some reason, we’re supposed to find compelling or funny or who knows what? Regardless, thanks to O’Connell, Grotilde is the least dull character in Tarker’s sardonic grotesquerie.
On the other side of the ledger is the buffoonish General Michail Itterod (the blameless Juan Carlos Hernández), a character that Mel Brooks and Buck Henry might have co-created over cocktails and, then, wisely agreed never to speak about again. Recently returned from overseeing America’s last war, the medal-laden nincompoop has two overriding objectives: convincing everyone that the fighting took a physical toll on him, even though he led it “from his office,” and marrying Grotilde. He tries to accomplish both with a pair of crutches and a fake cast, but the thoroughly cynical Grotilde isn’t fooled by this pathetic attempt “to prove something” to her and the world.
Complicating matters for the lovelorn general is that America now has a one hundred percent divorce rate. Grotilde, though, turns this bleak inevitability on its head, agreeing to marry him, if he promises to eventually divorce her in a “bitterous” way, which she says is “a combination of bitter and wondrous.” It’s the closest the play comes to being clever, which still isn’t particularly close.
But if you disagree, then, please, run on down to Soho Rep., where Tarker has a lot more portmanteaus with which to infect your brain. She’s especially fond of those that stem from imagining the offspring that might be produced if different species mated: whamon for whales and salmon; buffalowings for buffalo and butterflies; hawkworms for earthworms and hawks; sheeple for people and sheep. As evidenced by a fleeting reference to global warming, there might be an environmental message in all of this strained wordplay, but give it too much thought, and I think the joke really ends up being on you.
Tarker is far more overt about skewering American militarism, not only through the figure of General Michail, but also in scenes between Grotilde’s army-grunt son, known simply as boy (Matthew Jeffers) and a naïve foreigner, known simply as girl (Monique St. Cyr), whose country he has helped to decimate. Although the war is now over, Grotilde’s son can’t accept it; he would rather go on fighting, despite the fact that there is no one left to kill. It’s an interesting idea that Tarker isn’t inclined to develop.
As they grasp for shared meaning in their upended lives, there are moments in boy and girl’s relationship that approach some minimal level of emotional or intellectual impact. But, unfortunately, Tarker seems philosophically opposed to any hint of narrative depth in Thunderbodies, constantly choosing instead to fall back on forced weirdness whenever things start to ring true. Inevitably, the intervening surreal shenanigans involve her principal oddball troika: the increasingly earthy Grotilde; the general, who goes looking for boy in a crab outfit (side-splitting!); or the president (Ben Horner), a square-jawed megalomaniac fond of communicating with people through a tiny drone that he personally operates.
Doubling down on Tarker’s instincts, Blain-Cruz directs the play as if its greatest enemy is thinking too much about it. Popping up and ducking out all around Matt Saunders’s blue-and-yellow pastel set, the actors recite their lines quickly, apparently unconcerned if all of them are heard. Yi Zhao’s garish lighting (a strobe effect goes on so long you wonder if it’s actually intended to induce epilepsy) and Oana Botez’s sublimely awful costumes are also calibrated to distract from Tarker’s words rather than enhance them.
Trying to beguile us even before the play technically begins, Blain-Cruz makes use of a dancing rainbow letter banner that spells out Thunderbodies; admittedly, its movements are well choreographed to Chad Raines’s thumping sound design. But, as for what that enigmatic title might mean, your guess is as good as mine.
Thunderbodies (through November 18, 2018)
Soho Rep., 46 Walker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.sohorep.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission