Rare is the writer who can put race relations bluntly in front of an audience and make it laugh. And not just illicit, guilty twitters, but full-out side-splitting laughter. Eric Coble is that writer, and in his new play, “Natural Selection,” he puts it out there for both the discomfort and entertainment of his audience. Coble’s contribution to the Human Festival of New American Plays takes place in the near future after the earth has gone through what is referred to as “the change.”
In this new world, Henry Carson, played by Jay Russell, is an employee of Culture Fiesta World Theme Park in Orlando, where indigenous peoples are assets to be caught, trained and displayed in an ode to the perceived past. Henry is in charge of restocking the Native American pavilion after the death of one of his subjects. When he ventures into the wilds of New Mexico to bag a native, he ends up with a new appreciation for the visceral realities of life. He also mistakenly ends up with Mexican-American Zhao (Javi Mulero), who has no interest in weaving rugs or throwing pots for the benefit of the tourist trade.
While Henry’s work life falls apart, his home life is lived in the virtual world. His wife, Suzie (Melinda Wade), blogs their innermost secrets and photographs their food for posterity. His son Terrance (Joseph Benjamin Glaser) attends school, plays soccer and participates in his school play, all on a green screen within the confines of his bedroom.
Russell and Mulero are excellent as Henry and Zhao, the reluctant heroes who forge an unlikely friendship. Wade, as Suzie, turns in a powerful performance as a woman who is in hiding from real life. Heather Dilly ably plays three characters, all shrill, bitter and unforgettable. She is at her best as Ms. Fjeldstad, the representative from Mega Family Christian Praise Park, a competing park that wants to purchase Henry’s supposed “real Indian.” Mark Mineart is also impressive in dual roles. As Ernie Hardaway, he is a chauvinistic boor who regales Henry with adventure stories about the real world. He is vulgar, loud, rude and funny. As Neiberding, the representative from Extreme Terror Park who also has his sights on Zhao, he is again the same, but with the addition of lime green accessories and a car salesman’s shtick.
Nicely imagined as a modernist home and sterile office, the stage sets are beautifully done, complete with a helicopter sequence that is nearly perfect in its execution. Imaginatively directed by Marc Masterson, Coble’s play is an amazing piece of commentary on our virtual society and the commodification of the disenfranchised. Only at the end does he lose his grasp on the audience. The last few minutes of the play are muddled and confusing, but we’ve already gotten the point and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Even with a flawed ending, “Natural Selection” is a strong play that is absolutely worth seeing.
by DANA ADAMS