She had me at “I have returned and it begins!” The opening salvo of the Huntington production of HURRICANE DIANE couldn’t be more spot-on. Not only is it the first production of the Huntington’s 40th season, but the first inside any Boston theater since spring 2020 when the world as we knew it shut down. The play is a contemporary riff on Euripides’ THE BACCHAE and “She” is the Greek God Dionysus, god of ecstasy and agriculture, wine, song–and by extension, theater! As in Euripides’ play, the god announces right off the bat that “she” is now a mortal named Diane, a lesbian gardener (why not omnisexual?) ready to plow through a cul-de-sac in latter day Thebes– here called New Jersey–in order to seduce unsuspecting suburban housewives and uproot their ideas about “curb appeal.”
I couldn’t make this up, but Pulitzer Prize finalist Madeleine George did, and takes a crack at climate change through a tragicomic lens. Sharply observed and written, this odd amalgam of a play demands supreme confidence from its cast and director. On opening night, the play was conspicuously dwarfed by a very real Hurricane–Ida– rampaging up the east coast. Unlike Ida, HURRICANE DIANE failed to gather dramatic force and felt like a minor low pressure system rumbling on the theatrical horizon.
As Diane, Rami Margron gives it her best shot. She first hits the stage in a blaze of light as a literal force of nature, a seriously sexy, exciting energy that threatens the aspirationally bucolic world of designer homes and gardens in a bougie corner of Red Bank. Diane is back because the climate is out of whack, and she aims to set things right by restoring the earth to a more primitive and purer state. Her modus operandi is to literally seduce four homemakers out of their environmentally corrosive ways and into her version of paradise: a wild night in the sack unleashing their inhibitions and a thicket of primeval vegetation, far from the tortured topiaries and insecticide-saturated lawns in the neighborhood.
Diane immediately meets her match in the white-suited, blonde, and diabolically polished Carol (Esme Allen) who worships HGTV and matching pansies. Their initial encounter is among the play’s best and a harbinger of complications to come. At the other end of the spectrum is Beth whose husband has abandoned her and their lawn– which has started going to seed. But Beth is dying for the kind of abandon Diane promises. Marianna Bassham is effortlessly funny and vulnerable here, playing the part with just the right hint of ditz. If only the rest of the cast were as sharply drawn.
A bland Kris Sidberry is Renee; beneath her flowing tunics in neutral tones, is a flirt who loves to flaunt the lesbian relationship she had with a roommate in college. Rounding out the quartet is the brash, leopard-print-bedecked Pam played by Jennifer Bubriski. Her character is set up for maximum comic relief, but many of her lines and laughs don’t land. Does she lack comic timing? Has she been misdirected? The production feels like it can’t decide if it really wants to go for these laughs or doesn’t trust that it should, as it leads us deeper into the darker concerns at its core. There’s a tonal disjointedness that director Jenny Koons and perhaps the playwright haven’t resolved, along with the stiffness of the staging around a rolling island, a perfectly observed detail; what high-end kitchen isn’t built around a giant sacrificial stone slab of an island or two? If only it were more creatively utilized as such. Here it functions more like an impediment leaving the actors either stranded or upstaged.
The play’s one set is an elegant and mostly empty space, save for that island, and feels both modern and ancient with tall arched windows that open onto a back wall of greenery. The penultimate scene in this space is a visually beautiful piece of staging and surprisingly evocative of impending doom as the cosmic clock– already at 11:45 -creeps closer to midnight. But then it’s undercut by a flimsy coda, like a tepid reprimand. HURRICANE DIANE promised a storm but the forecast fizzled. When it comes to weather that’s a relief. But when it comes to theater, I want to be blown away.
HURRICANE DIANE Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, Aug. 27-Sept. 26. At the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required.