Robert O’Hara, a talented playwright who burst into the big time with his autobiographical 2011 hit “Bootycandy,” returns to Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons with another high-concept dramedy called “Mankind” that boasts the same manic wit and flare for sharp-edged satire.
Unfortunately, it’s also an overlong exploration of toxic masculinity and a battle cry for women’s rights that suffers from an even more glaring shortcoming: an all-male cast.
O’Hara posits a dystopian future in which women have been rendered extinct for more than a century — at least until a careless couple of “f—mates,” played by Bobby Moreno and Anson Mount (“Hell on Wheels”), conceive a child who miraculously turns out to be a girl.
Not only have men learned to adapt and give birth, but abortion has been made illegal — which lands our heroes in prison for attempted murder when they seek to terminate the pregnancy. The environment has also been devastated by climate change, which offers a precarious future for Jason and Mark’s offspring, Cry Baby.
O’Hara and his cast have much verbal fun laying out the particulars of this dystopia, with characters talking about their fathers without any verbal inflection to distinguish between them. In multiple supporting roles, Ariel Shafir and André De Shields similarly steal scenes with peculiar inflections and offbeat line readings.
But the show feels both overlong and overproduced, with an elaborate rotating Erector-set-like set (designed by Clint Ramos) and over-the-top costumes (by Dede M. Ayite). The polish of the production alas, also helps to underscore how undercooked the script sometimes is.
Even scenes that begin well, with clever spins on themes previously established, drag on like one of those last-half-hour “Saturday Night Live” sketches. (A faux religious service late in the first act, complete with hymn and prayer cards that the audience is meant to recite, is perhaps the most cringe-worthy recent instance of forced participation in the theater.)
It doesn’t help that O’Hara has opted to direct his own material, as he did with “Bootycandy” in this same theater in 2014. There, too, a different director might have helped this prodigiously talented writer to hone his material into a tighter, sharper edge — and to excise elements that don’t quite work.
In “Mankind,” those elements include some protracted riffs on the hypocrisy of organized religion and bizarre send-ups of radical feminists — all of them male — who are determined to “fight for their civil rights before they get here” again. It’s the ultimate act of man-splaining.