Social Creatures starts in darkness, thanks to a busted generator. The characters look frazzled, greasy-haired, dressed in galoshes and mismatched ensembles – like they left somewhere in a hurry, grabbing whatever they could. A port-a-potty stands at stage right, lending a sense of temporariness to the space. When the light returns, it illuminates the fact that something has gone deeply wrong for the folks here. And we’re holed up with them.
Trinity Rep commissioned “Social Creatures” from Jackie Sibblies Drury, a graduate of the Brown MFA playwriting program, back in 2010. The world premiere production, on stage at Trinity now, blends horror and humor in an original story that will leave you gasping and guffawing in turn. It’s clever, creepy, fast-paced and, most of all, fun.
Director Curt Columbus thrusts the audience into the action and keeps us there, riveted, for the duration of the play. We learn that something dreadful has happened, causing this ragtag group of survivors to shelter together. Society has broken down, and the future of mankind lies in jeopardy. But the specifics remain vague. Is it a virus? Zombies? Vampires? The danger seems to be outside…or is it? By the end of this twisting tale, don’t be surprised if you eye your own seatmates with sudden, strange suspicion.
The cast of “Social Creatures” portrays a community of desperate people contemplating doom. But they do so with such vigor and charisma that they make the apocalypse a hoot. Guest artist D’Arcy Dersham plays the self-proclaimed leader of the group, Mrs. Jones. She thinks she knows best, but nobody else does. Dersham is excellent as a competent person trying to make order of chaos. Her husband (played with sinister glee by guest artist Alexander Platt) wants to help her, but the group likes him even less.
Each character offers insight into the different ways we deal with crises. Mrs. Wilson, played gracefully by resident company member Janice Duclos, remains kind and compassionate. Her friend Mrs. Williams, played by hilarious guest artist Nance Williamson, takes a bitingly sarcastic tact. As the surly and defiant Mr. Johnson, company member Timothy Crowe seems one step short of nihilism. Which is understandable, given the circumstances. But he finds his own way to regain some semblance of control.
Three talented recent Brown/Trinity MFA graduates round out the cast. Rebecca Gibel plays Mrs. Smith, a haunted soul who can’t find her husband (played with an appropriate air of mystery by Charlie Thurston). Just when she seems certain to be consumed by grief, Gibel gets a chance to really sink her teeth into the role. And Darien Battle gets big laughs as the hapless but humorous Mr. Brown, whose attempt to seek refuge places him in grave danger.
Eugene Lee’s set design incorporates stacks of flickering TV sets, a locked cage for canned supplies, and an ominous isolation chamber made of plastic and duct tape. Olivera Gajic’s costumes give the cast the appearance of refugees, down to their last grubby, woolen cardigans. Peter Sasha Hurowitz’s sound and video design mixes images of a deserted Providence, tense recordings of the characters, and the static of news stations gone silent. It all heightens the sense of foreboding.
Expect to encounter serious questions about human nature and impulses, how we handle disasters, and how we cause them. Also expect blood splatter, devilishly delicious performances, and a spook-tacular time. “Social Creatures” is a feature you won’t want to miss.
“Social Creatures” runs through April 21 in Trinity Rep’s Dowling Theater. Regular and discounted tickets are on sale now at the Trinity Rep box office, 201 Washington St., Providence, by phone at 351-4242, and online at www.