"Social Creatures" brings the zombie craze to the stage

Michael Salconi and Sophi Hinderberger
Michael Salconi and Sophi Hinderberger (Dave Frey)

"Social Creatures" 

By Jackie Sibblies Drury 

Directed by Kellie Mecleary

Zombies are everywhere. Of course, we’re not actually being overrun by the living dead, but by their representation. “The Walking Dead” is on AMC, “Night of the Living Dead” just ran at the Creative Alliance. And there are even more think pieces about why we’re into zombies than there are zombies. Right now, someone is probably writing a treatise about Ebola and zombies. 

So, the question is: Why would a theater such as Single Carrot add another zombie to this already-crowded parade of slow walkers?

In Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Social Creatures” there are several different theories floating around among the seven people living in an abandoned theater about what caused the zombie apocalypse—germs, drugs, or, best of all, white people who just started doing whatever they wanted and couldn’t quit. But whatever happened, the chief thrill of the zombie narrative lies not in the zombies themselves, but the humans, who end up isolated in small groups, having to recreate society in extreme conditions, which changes the individuals in ways they would have never suspected. 

In "Social Creatures," everyone in the group goes by generic (and yet Tarantino-esque) pseudonyms, imposed by Mrs. Jones (Sophie Hinderberger)—as if to keep their true, pre-disaster identities separate from their desperate realities. Unfortunately, this strategy results in largely undeveloped characters who may waver, but don't change.

Mrs. Jones is the uptight control freak who has set out a series of rules for everyone living in the theater. Her husband, Mr. Jones (James Bunzli), is an asshole who uses childish blustering force to get his way. We know the characters are like this because other characters tell us again and again. Mr. Jones doesn’t actually seem like such an asshole, but everyone keeps saying he is one. Hinderberger, CP’s “Best Actress” in 2013, is normally superb, but her character left her little room to move and she largely came across in a single note of organized desperation—or desperation organized. There is one great moment where she tells Mr. Jones that she wishes he was courageous, a leader, and that he had the ability to inspire. It is a quiet frustration, as in Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and it is one of the only truly sad moments in what should be a saddish play.

Mr. Johnson (Michael Salconi), who begins the play uninterested in the others, does end up undergoing a significant change that is far more profound than any transformation into a zombie, that other kind of "Social Creature." And all of the actors play their parts well; it's just that they aren't written with much depth, despite the videoed monologues in which they list their affiliations and memberships in the old world, back when belonging mattered so much more and so much less. It's a cool trick the way they actually deliver the lines in a room above the screen, their silhouettes visible through a window.

In general, the play looks really gritty and spooky and the Carrots pull off what there is to pull off. As in Annex Theater's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" down the road, the play begins with the audience ushered through an alley, made part of the play's world. And there is a great bit of Grand Guignol—and plenty of gore—to enliven—or undeaden—the second half of the play.

But there is always something in this world that is both too familiar and too foreign—we’re too used to seeing it on film. On the stage, the people feel somehow fake. Despite the tensions and terrors they are supposed to be facing, they simply cannot portray this duress in any meaningful way. In the end, “Social Creatures” is a fun production, but it is not profound.