A wall has been built around Great Britain, or some well-preserved portion of it, in “The Ruins of Civilization,” a meaty dystopian drama from Penelope Skinner, who won raves for her 2011 dark comedy “The Village Bike.”
Allusions to current events don’t stop with that border-lining barrier, built to keep out foreigners (here, referred to as “newcomers”). Skinner’s play imagines a globe 30 years on, in which predictions of climate chaos are realized and resource-strapped governments protect citizens, only if they promise not to procreate.
In the new world order, nations ravaged by encroaching oceans have become tourist attractions for the elite. As the story begins, Dolores (Rachael Holmes) and Silver (Tim Daly) have just returned to their house from an unspecified part of the dying Mediterranean. They’re discussing a wounded dog they came across on their journey and chose to leave in the road.
Both could see the dog was near death. Dolores wanted to stop their car and comfort the animal, ease its passing. Silver, ever pragmatic, drove on by, but now, in the recounting, tells his wife that his preference would have been to stop and swiftly put the dog out of its misery: “Take a rock, crush its skull …”
A big question is wrapped up in that foreboding vacation memory: What responsibility do we have to solve a problem that is under our control, when we know we can’t solve the larger problem it’s a part of?
Enter Mara (Roxanna Hope), a newcomer Dolores meets at the supermarket soon after. Dolores, her nurturing impulses reawakened on holiday, is intrigued by Mara—and abruptly invites her to move in to her home. Mara is from the country Dolores and Silver have just visited and is working in the U.K. on a government permit.
Silver is both aghast and suspicious of Mara, but he agrees to the arrangement because he believes it will make his wife happy. Mara’s arrival, naturally, will compromise the couple’s orthodoxy in ways that force all three central characters to make fateful choices.
Daly, of TV’s “Madam Secretary,” adopts a British accent and does impressive work as a persnickety unpublished writer possessing an undercurrent of sensitivity. He is overbearing toward his wife and Mara, but obsequious toward a government inspector, who controls nothing short of his well-being.
Women like Dolores, who survive on the government stipend, are subject to regular exams intended to assess their desires to reproduce. Get pregnant around here, and you’re sent packing. Silver needs Dolores’s income to underwrite his artistic endeavors.
As Dolores, Holmes is conciliatory and fragile on the surface, but there’s obviously a conflict brewing within. She knows who she is and what she wants, and her subversive side virtually oozes out in increasingly passive-aggressive interactions with her husband.
I also was impressed with Hope’s Mara, who arrives with a dramatic story that in lesser hands might leave us to suspect ulterior motives. Even with its questionable elements, we never doubt Mara’s sincerity, even as we realize she has a big problem.
Orlagh Cassidy is humorless and all business, at first, as Joy, the just-doing-my-job-ma’am inspector charged with assessing Dolores’s emotional state. (While we’re on the subject of naming conventions, let’s note: “Dolores” is Spanish for “sorrows,” while the Hebrew “Mara” is the name of a bitter lake in the Bible.)
Designer Neil Patel’s blue palette pairs alarmingly with the almost constant patter of rain from outside. Leah C. Gardiner directs the efficient drama, which offers both an ending and an epilogue—the ending jibes with the tone of the story; the epilogue sees Silver forced to reexamine his worldview.
All four characters seem like real people, trying to balance a sense of humanity with the human need to both adapt to circumstances ... and look out for ourselves.
“The Ruins of Civilization,” through June 5 at the MTC’s Studio at Stage II, 131 W. 55th St. Tickets: Starting ay $30. Call 212-581-1212.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn