nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 7, 2009
Finishing House, Jack Hanley's new play, a Dixon Place Mondo Cané! Commission, is so full of apocalyptic, Orwellian, future-shock, post-everything ideas that it risks overloading its audience's senses. Even just reading the "timeline of national and world events relative to the interior of the Finishing House," supplied on the back of the program, makes the body and mind start to reel:
2016: The Dow falls below 2000. The second Great Depression becomes inevitable....
2018: Manhattan is declared a sovereign state under the auspices of the United Nations....
2021: ....Medical research will become the nation's primary export....
2040: Human organ farms are organized by the Department of Health....
Zowie—and the play hasn't even begun. When it does, we quickly meet Dr. Timothy Matchett, who is at the moment having sex with a young woman whose name, we will learn, is Bee. The doctor's penis is apparently quite large, based on what we're hearing as they negotiate the act; when he's finished, he pulls off a condom that contains what looks like a cup of semen. (There is a certain amount of sexual content in this play, as you have discovered, but it's generally handled with discretion and there is no nudity.)
When Matchett's wife, Elizabeth, appears, she discloses, among other things, that Timothy really is part horse (at least the one part, anyway.)
Almost in passing, Hanley's characters continue laying out the astonishing futuristic setup: Matchett's parents used to run a farm where human/animal hybrids were bred; the place is now a big strawberry farm, worked by migrants from Mexico (the border seems to be quite nearby, though we are apparently in what used to be called Connecticut); Indian-run casinos buy the strawberries, which are apparently a rare delicacy nowadays (the ruins of a place called Foxwoods are alluded to at one point).
People in this new society are constantly evaluated as to their healthfulness, and the total monetary cost of keeping each individual alive—a kind of warped take on net present value in a health-driven economy—determines whether the person is permitted to stay alive or is sent to a "finishing house."
Hanley's idea of what happens to people at one of these places—on the order of Auschwitz, but nicer—is startling and extraordinary for its poetic elegance; I leave it to you to discover precisely how he imagines "finishing" to be accomplished. I also will not disclose what happens to the Matchetts, their unwelcome guest, Bee, and their unseen son, James (who is gay, and therefore not highly desirable to keep alive, per the powers that be). Finishing House is a cautionary tale on the order of 1984 or Animal Farm, just as political as those works but higher-tech and loaded with cyberpunk touches that make it entirely contemporary and original.
I wonder if Hanley's script might work better as a novel or a film—it's so loaded with exotic imaginings that it comes across as almost entirely expositional: there's so much to explain to the audience that we hardly have any time to contemplate or ponder or emotionally engage with the world being drawn for us.
This production, directed by Christopher Eaves with a daring imagination that matches the playwright's, is brisk and exciting and visceral. Leonel C. Valle's striking set evokes the stark coldness of the piece with deft economy; lighting by Stephen Quandt, sound by Joshua Coleman, music by Sarah Lynch, and wardrobe by Yveyi Yi all contribute to the aesthetic that Eaves and Hanley conjure here. Natalie Ferrier (Mrs. Matchett), Jessica Howell (Bee), and Bob Jaffe (Dr. Matchett) give full-out, fearless performances to bring this jolting hybrid of high-tech sci-fi, Crichton-esque horror, post-Bush economics, and underground theatre to life.