Theatre Review

The Dystopian Mindscape of The Ants

The Ants (playing now through July 30th at the Geffen Playhouse) is a provocative and timely chamber play which deals with the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. As income inequality has mushroomed, this play extrapolates this socio-economic dilemma to its logical end with a dystopian glimpse into the future. Playwright Ramiz Monsef merges elements of science fiction and drama to engage the audience in a morality play with characters that are grounded in reality. The story elements fuse nicely with production elements which help convey a claustrophobic alternate reality which creates a pressure cooker for its characters. The design team’s use of mixed media (onscreen projections, technology and special effects) creates an immersive atmosphere which is captivating, disruptive and unsettling.

The play opens in an avant-garde manner with the nonsensical ramblings of a disembodied face subsumed in a mountain of discarded junk. We’re not sure what to make of this human trash heap, but it sets the tone for what ultimately becomes a cautionary piece of theatre about humanity, where we’re at and where we’re potentially headed.

The story then shifts gears to focus on the relationship between two brothers, Nami and Sean. Nami is the 29 year-old down-on-his-luck brother who has been evicted and reaches out to his successful, married brother Sean because he needs a place to crash for the night. When Nami arrives at his brother’s gleaming architectural showplace of a house, the contrast between the two brothers is stark from their manner of dress to their speaking style. Sean is polished and sophisticated while Nami speaks like a homie, dressed in ripped jeans and carries himself with a colorful, urban swagger which makes him appear more animated and youthful.

Though it’s clear there’s a sibling bond between the brothers, there’s a widening gulf based on their vastly different income and lifestyle. Sean takes Nami to task for relying on him as a never-ending source of handouts. Sean encourages Nami to make more of an effort to connect beyond the financial ties that bind. But it becomes clear that forging common ground has become increasingly improbable because of their divergent mindsets. Sean proudly shows off the over-priced art work which adorns his house. Sean and his wife’s art collection is pretentious replete with virtue signaling upstaging any intrinsic value. But it’s the high-tech security enhancements that set this house apart, turning it into a veritable fortress and a case study in how extreme wealth can lead to extreme paranoia. The security system is voice-activated with a centralized “brain” coordinating everything, enabling the homeowner to ramp up security at a moment’s notice. Another source of tension between the two brothers is the fact that Sean has distanced himself from his Iranian heritage, going by Sean instead of his given name Shahid.

Nicky Boulos and Megan Hill in The Ants
Megan Hill and Nicky Boulos star and spar in The Ants

Before long, we’re introduced to Sean’s wife Meredith, dressed in a cream-colored ensemble. She is the personification of the privileged (albeit self-made) woman who is the mastermind behind this high-tech fortress. Meredith is troubled by the encroaching homeless population in their midst and the impact it has on her serenity. She masks her contempt for the homeless with a thinly veiled veneer of concern for their well-being. Meredith is particularly unnerved by a homeless man who had the audacity to acknowledge her openly as one would an acquaintance. In her eyes, this is a clear violation of an unspoken social contract that the two worlds are to remain separate. Meredith’s condescending attitude toward the homeless extends to her brother-in-law Nami. She makes a slight effort to be gracious, but it’s clear she looks down on him. Nami is starving and anxious to get dinner underway, but is in for a rude awakening when he learns that Sean and Meredith are completely vegan. Faced with the prospect of sharing a salad with his brother and Meredith, Nami orders pizza. Meanwhile, Meredith is unnerved to find that their grocery delivery service forgot to include the almond milk they’d ordered. Ever-attentive to his wife’s needs, Sean decides to venture out into the night despite the pouring rain so they’ll have almond milk for their tea the following morning. Before he leaves, Meredith has Sean activate another feature of her smart home which is essentially a GPS tracking device for Sean known as “the leash.”

Act two focuses on the awkward interaction between Meredith and Nami while Sean is off on his errand. Meredith prepares her vegan kale salad while Nami waits for his pizza to arrive. The tension between the two reaches a critical mass as Nami calls her out on her privilege while she pushes back, insisting that she earned the right to her privilege with hard work. The tension is interrupted by news of turmoil in the streets. There’s been an uprising by the homeless. Residents are being warned to stay locked in their homes as hysteria ensues in a manner reminiscent of War of the Worlds. Meredith and Nami finally find common cause over their concern for Sean as the danger from without escalates. The tension is interrupted by the arrival of the pizza Nami ordered. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, Meredith’s guard ratchets up, convinced that she recognizes the Pizza Delivery Guy as the homeless man who made her so uncomfortable. The Pizza Delivery Guy, who identifies himself as Dave, assures Meredith that she’s mistaken. She grabs a hammer and holds Dave hostage while she and Nami try to ascertain whether he can be trusted. Ultimately, the truth comes out and Dave comes clean.

And this is where the play’s title comes into focus as Dave says: “I am Dave, the ant, who knows how heavy nothing can be.” As a representative of the homeless contingent, Dave assures Meredith that “no one wants to hurt you, we just want to move in.” Dave further tells her that her husband (who never returns from the store) relinquished their house. But Meredith stands her ground, ordering Dave to get down on his knees. She makes Dave crawl toward the door, bringing down steel barrier before he’s crossed the threshold in a chilling execution.

There’s a sort of coda to the story 5 weeks after the climactic execution with Nami and Meredith co-habitating in her once beautiful home which is now in complete disarray. By this point, Meredith’s tenuous connection with reality has been severed, leaving the audience to grapple with an ending bereft of closure.

Hysteria and paranoia reach a critical mass in The Ants
Hysteria and paranoia reach a critical mass in The Ants

The cast are uniformly excellent, bringing this finely wrought morality play/cautionary tale into sharp relief. Nicky Boulos as Nami provides the emotional core of the piece. He is at once innocent and relatable representing the plight of the underclass. Ryan Shrime is solid and believable as the upper class Sean/Shahid who has sublimated his heritage (and by extension his identity) in deference to his wife and fully embraced the high-tech paranoid mindset. Megan Hill brings next level “Karen” to the role of Meredith as she seesaws between controlled serenity and uptight paranoia. Of the four characters, Meredith traverses the longest arc which she navigates masterfully. The precise way she shreds and slices kale while manically preparing her vegan salad spoke volumes about her obsessive need for control. Jeremy Radin is particularly effective as “Dave,” the Pizza Delivery Guy. The person we least suspect to have an ulterior motive plays a critical role in the resistance. Radin takes on this dual role admirably, seeming hapless and innocent before revealing his true allegiance to the resistance.

The Ants is not without its flaws, leaving certain story points up to conjecture, but its bold vision carries the day. In these fraught times, finding new ways to reach an audience and staking out an unequivocal message has value. While heavy-handed at times, The Ants has something to say about our alienation in this social media saturated world and our tendency to other-ize the homeless as “less than” and threatening.

As the playwright writes on his Instagram page: “Our play is not nice easy art. Our show will challenge you and it will make you confront things you might not want to confront.” He continues, describing The Ants as “a different kind of story. One that you don’t forget the second you leave the theatre. One that doesn’t have all its answers wrapped up in a bow. I promise it will get under your skin.”

To that last point, I can attest.

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