Few plays in recent memory have felt more plugged in to the zeitgeist than Carter W. Lewis’ “The Hummingbird Wars.” Among the first lines of dialogue is a reference to Al Gore’s sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera, and nods to Demi Lovato and the anti-gay controversy surrounding Chick-Fil-A soon follow.
The play’s underlying themes resonate even deeper: In this surreal study of a nuclear family’s implosion, loaded firearms sprout on and around the furniture like weeds, invariably winding up in the backpack of the family’s teenage son. The disembodied voice of a cable company tech supporter quickly becomes a frightening example of private intrusion and electronic harassment. Treatment for an obscure health condition turns the loving girlfriend of the family’s daughter into a zonked-out, emotionally numb version of her former self. And the aforementioned cable company’s endless supply of home-delivered shipping boxes contains a cryptic message scrawled in marker.
Taken together—along with the onrush of water that, slowly but surely, seeps through the cracked walls of the house, thanks to a break in a pipe—“The Hummingbird Wars” offers a withering satire on 21st century malaise that feels ripped from tomorrow’s headlines.
So why does this arrestingly relevant piece of theater feel so lackluster in its current incarnation at Arts Garage? That’s the complicated question I’m still sorting through, as I continue pick through the rubble of this missed opportunity.
A good part of the problem lands on Lewis’ feet. Grand concepts still need to get the minutiae right, and even before the play’s accelerating weirdness takes over, his characters’ exchanges just don’t ring true. “The Hummingbird Wars” is a mere simulacrum of suburbanity, set during a couple of deteriorating days in the life of traumatized Afghan war vet Warren (Todd Allen Durkin); his wife Mel (Jeni Hacker), a liberal activist lawyer; their son Pete (Andrew Griner); daughter Kate (Gretchen Porro); and Kate’s girlfriend Tracy (Joline Mujica).
When forming these dynamics for his audience, the natural patter of everyday conversation eludes Lewis, more than it has in any of his plays I’ve seen—to the point where nearly every character is granted a soliloquy that sounds as arch as it does painfully long. Self-conscious cleverness, rather than recognizable verity, seems to have guided many of his Lewis’ decisions.
But fault lies equally with director Greg Johnson and his cast, who fail to elevate Carter’s source material to any satiric zenith it deserves. This show is supposed to funny, and by and large it isn't. Griner is stilted and awkward as Pete; it’s enough, apparently, that he memorized his lines, and his performance is all rote recitation with zero emotional connection. Everybody else is at least capable; Mujica delivers her share of lines with more enthusiasm, but her character’s sense of humor never translates. Durkin, whose experience in this community raises his standard of expectation higher than his colleagues, merely goes through the motions. His boredom is palpable, and he feels as marooned onstage as his shell-shocked character is in his backyard, where he frequently wanders in a zombified stupor.
Only Porro seems to be fully engaged with this material, and therefore it is only her character’s story—she’s either paranoid or a victim of an encroaching surveillance state—that resonates deeply.
The best that can be said for the Theatre at Arts’ Garage’s “Hummingbird Wars” is that its technical elements are top-notch, from the glow of crepuscular light through the kitchen window (fine work from lighting designer David Nail) to the rumble of apocalyptic thunder, the running water and the bowel-shaking gunshots, courtesy sound designer Michael Kelly. Together, they effectively build toward a busy and exciting climax. But by then, it’s too late: “The Hummingbird Wars” has already gone the way of the titular, symbolic birds discussed by some of the characters—misdirected and slamming into walls.
"The Hummingbird Wars" runs through Feb. 2 at Arts Garage, 180 N.E. First St., Delray Beach. Tickets cost $30 to $45. Call 561/450-6357 or visit artsgarage.org.