What does a world without hope look like? Is it a bleak moonscape — black sky, cold sun, gray hills? Or is it the too perfect world of American suburbia, where the sun — and the smiles — shine a little too bright; where too-green, cultivated lawns lead to soothing interiors, painted in shades named “Ocean Side”, “Interactive Cream”, and “Moderate White”; where real freedom is banished to the gritty, marginal, blind spots of ubiquitous surveillance cameras?

The Realm, running from now until April 18th at The Wild Project in the East Village, is a futuristic dystopia in the tradition of American post-apocalyptic dystopias like Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog (remember that one? Don Johnson starred in the movie!), and, closer to our time, Urinetown. The time is the not-too-distant future. After an unnamed cataclysm, humanity has been forced underground. Natural resources are scarce — especially water. Human beings have learned how to live spare, lean lives, stripped of all superfluity — and fun. And, for that matter, freedom. Water is rationed, life is rationed, even words are rationed.

The lights come up on a bare stage, shrouded in black and framed with crazy black pipes that dissect the space into uncomfortable angles. Sitting at a table are two adults wearing eerie, transparent Halloween masks, and a boy, not more than fourteen. They are dressed as if Ralph Lauren was conscripted after the apocalypse  to make preppy dystopian uniforms. It’s dinner time, and the family silently cut tiny, white, food-type cubes into smaller and smaller pieces. Jimmy, the son, is fidgeting with his fork, annoying both the adults. They engage him in typically dystopian and humorless conversation, the sort you will find at any average American dinner table: “Did you have a pleasant day Mr. Father?”; “Every day is a pleasant day Mrs. Mother.”

Jimmy is trapped in a dying world. Someday Jimmy will have to kill his father and take his place (part of state-sponsored eugenics). Before he is ready to assume the role of The Father, he will have to learn self-discipline of the sort practiced at “Mind Review,” where Ms. Analyst shapes the minds of boys and girls into men and women. At the dinner table Jimmy resists his parents’ authority by making unnatural sounds with his mouth — a doorbell, someone knocking. Mrs. Mother says “If We Pretend We’re Not Here, Maybe They’ll Go Away.” “Stop playing that ridiculous game,” replies Mr. Father. “It’s not a game,” snaps Mrs. Mother. “It’s what they told us to do if it started again.” In a healthy world, Jimmy’s parents might have said “use your words!” But Jimmy doesn’t have any words. The State and Mind Review are systematically taking them away.

This is not Jimmy’s story however. Two other characters, Kansas, a girl Jimmy’s age, and Laura, a middle-aged woman who we assume is living on “the outside” are counterpoints to Jimmy’s bleak future. Both Kansas and Laura have something in common besides their sex: they are both thought criminals who hold onto words for their sensuous value. At different points in the play both Laura and Kansas recite a litany of words that have nothing in common, other than the aesthetic pleasure of their oddity: “Ameliorate and obfuscate and dandelion and nursery rhyme and orangutan and orchestra and beautiful and love. Telephone and sousaphone and ice cream cone and flying saucer, madness stranger savior aspirin photograph contamination, argument and confident and circumvent and vacuum cleaner …” et cetera. Kansas and Laura are the Guy Montags of this story, risking their lives to hold onto life’s richness and beauty — even in the teeth of an oppressive political regime.

Much credit is due to Amanda Stephens for her set design and Daniel Kluger and Charles Coes for their sound design. Both make The Realm a genuinely creepy place. The noises that seem to come out of Jimmy’s mouth, the whispers of self-help dogma that float out of the stage and over the audience (“The First Step You Take Is The Furthest!”; “Only You Are Accountable!”), and the hands that appear on the margins of the play space add a lot of value to the theatrical experience. The same is true of the actors, especially Aaron Simon Gross and Emily Olson who play Jimmy and Kansas, respectively. The dynamic between the two young actors (neither of them seems old enough to vote) adds a fifth dimension to the play that it would lack if those roles were played by two other actors. Mr. Gross’s Jimmy develops from a lovable naïf to a tool of the Mind Review. And Ms. Olsen’s Kansas is a suitably ambiguous revolutionary: on one hand, she elicits the audience’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden. On the other, she is uncompromising and difficult, especially with Jimmy after they have decided to run away together. Ms. Analyst tells her she’s special, and she is — in the same way that Jefferson, or Robespierre, or Lenin (or Rove) are special. Disgusted with the status quo, she wants to tear down the walls of insincerity — no matter the consequences.

This is the real reason to see The Realm. Ms. Myer wrote the play in 2005 when, as she said in an interview, “language was being manipulated and distorted by the Bush administration. You see similar issues coming from the radical right today — the misuse, abuse, and even conflation of words like fascist and socialist.” It is true that five years ago, this play would have obviously been about the oppressiveness of The State and its Orwellian manipulation of language. Who, over twenty-five, can forget “Mission Accomplished,” “freedom fries,” and “Democracy on the march”? But the irony is precisely that for the protagonists of The Realm, who are under eighteen, the voices crying out against smiley-faced government oppression, “Yes We Can!” sloganeering, and off-shore oil exploration are the right-wingers, the Tea Partiers. The revolutionaries have gone back to being Timothy McVeigh after eight years of Osama bin Laden. If you see Kansas (a red meat state) and Jimmy as champions of personal liberty, it’s not a stretch to see them as the kind of libertarians who might vote for Rand Paul and read Ayn Rand. Or as a friend of mine once said, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

The fact that the play can resonate so differently from the intentions of the author (and possibly the director) shows that language itself is more fluid, unpredictable, and fecund than even Kansas or Laura imagine. The play produces an unintentional irony by showing Jimmy’s developing talent making sound effects. He may not be able to say the word “orangutan,” but if he makes a lifelike reproduction of the sound, isn’t that more vital, immediate, and real that the word itself? Could it be that Laura and Kansas are sentimentally holding on to a world that deserves to pass away so that it can be replaced by something new, different, and truly alive? Reader, I will let you decide. The Realm is playing from now until the 18th. Check it out.

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