Playwright Mark Rigney has ambition and audacity galore, but in this New York premiere, currently on view at 59E59 Theaters, he’s chosen a metaphor for presenting his ideas that doesn’t illuminate them as much as dissolve them into nonsense. Silly to the point of absurdity, though sadly not Ionesco’s intellectually potent variety, “Bears” is a jumble of a play that attempts to explore such weighty themes as father-son conflict, sexuality’s spoiling of Eden, and the validating power of art through the interactions of three grizzly bears in a post-apocalyptic world. Sound funny? Not funny enough.
After an unspecified civilization-ending disaster kills off most of the world’s human population, Growl Bear, Timmy Bear, and Susie Wild Bear awaken to find that they are alone in their zoo except for their human keeper Annie. Susie, who was born in the wilderness, can’t wait to leave the zoo, and Timmy, who is intoxicated by her smell, is prepared to follow her anywhere; Growl Bear, however, is teaching himself to read and write and doesn’t want to ruin his opportunity to educate himself by leaving behind what’s left of civilization. They do eventually make their way to the forest, where Timmy, joyfully accepting his bearness, thrives. Growl Bear obtains a radio and listens to educational broadcasts from one of the few remaining humans so that he can practice his spelling. In order to produce cubs, Susie seduces a willing Timmy, but when he proves immature she turns to Growl Bear. He turns her down, confessing that he’s already fathered cubs, one of which is Timmy. Growl Bear then returns to the zoo, where Annie allows him to use her computer so that he can write his autobiography. Timmy returns, having been rejected by Susie, who also told him of his true parentage. When a starving Timmy attacks Annie, Growl Bear tries to warn her, thus choosing a human over his own bear offspring. He sends Timmy away and remains alone at the zoo.
The actors, dressed as humans with no hint of animal representation, manage to instill their characters with, well, humanity. Jenna Panther’s Susie is the most bearlike of the three, and her ferocity provides the play with a powerful motor. Jonathan Dickson invests Growl Bear with dignity and intelligence, and Nick Abeel delivers a Timmy suitably perplexed by it all. Jess Watkins’ unseen radio broadcaster is both funny and affecting.
Director Kristin McCarthy Parker adds a few gestures that remind us that the characters are bears, but for the most part she treats them like real people caught in an impossible situation. While this does little to give the play intellectual, narrative, or emotional sense, it at least makes “Bears” less ridiculous and—just barely—bearable.
Critic’s Score: C