Setting aside the futuristic setting and gimmicky stage mechanics of Rinne Groff’s “What Then,” what you have is another domestic drama about a dysfunctional family at the crossroads. Director Hal Brooks (“Thom Pain”) makes a strained effort to pass off banal family power plays as an ideological struggle of great consequence for future generations. That might go over with self-dramatizing collegiates, but the savvy downtown crowd has come to expect more innovative fare from the rebels at Clubbed Thumb.
Dad works for some evil industry that’s poisoning the planet for profit. Mom has quit her money-grubbing job and dreams of working to heal the environment. Nasty daughter hates her father, resents her stepmother and needs cash so she can move into a better apartment with her drug-dealer boyfriend, who has found a new customer in Dad.
That’s what’s going on, but it’s not exactly what you see in the tricked-up script, which puts the dysfunctional family dynamic in a futuristic context intended to make it seem less boring and more profound.
Before boredom snuffs out profundity, there’s time to admire the finer points of the production, beginning with the stainless steel kitchen setting designed by Jo Winiarski as a sleek and soulless domestic wasteland where no one actually prepares food or sits down to eat. The bunkerlike setting doesn’t afford much of a view of the parched and poisoned world outside. But vertical slots backlit in vibrant, pulsing shades of blue and magenta provide a visual clue to the household’s shifting moods, and strategically placed windows eventually offer a view of the toxic grit polluting the air outside.
The light show, courtesy of designer Kirk Bookman, begins in earnest when Diane (played with eye-popping earnestness by Meg MacCary), the mother in this dysfunctional household, takes to her bed — that is, to a slab lit from below to look like a radioactive autopsy tray. In her narcoleptic state, Diane has Technicolor dreams of the housing community she’s building in her new career as a godlike architect whose designs for living will heal the planet.
The plot that develops from this sci-fi premise is too bizarre to summarize, except to say it doesn’t entirely disguise the conventional domestic hostilities lurking beneath the symbolism. What it does do, though, is push the performance style of Brooks’ production into acting overdrive.
Andrew Dolan practically goes into spasms to show the moral insensitivity of Diane’s husband, Tom, as he defends the destructive agenda of his corporation. Nor does Merritt Wever, playing his delinquent daughter, Sallie, distinguish herself by screaming the house down. Only Piter Marek, as the drug dealer Bahktiyor, maintains a modicum of cool as he insinuates himself into Diane’s dream of saving the planet.
In fairness to all, Groff (“Inky,” “The Ruby Sunrise”) has written such stilted dialogue for her characters and put them in such improbable situations that any actor would be hard-pressed to find the humanity in this high-minded drivel.