After a sharp start, ART’s ‘O.P.C.’ loses steam

Michael T. Weiss, Kate Mulligan, and Olivia Thirlby in O.P.C. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Michael T. Weiss, Kate Mulligan, and Olivia Thirlby in O.P.C. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva, ART.

CAMBRIDGE — There’s nothing wrong with educating and informing as long as you’re entertaining along the way.

So playwright Eve Ensler has every right to rail against the wasteful society we live in her new play “O.P.C.”
Ensler and the American Repertory Theatre, where the world premiere of the play is now being staged through Jan. 4, are not only talking the talk, they’re walking the walk.
Brett J. Banakis’ eclectic set is made entirely from what the theater calls “recycled, found, and trashed materials.” That includes shipping pallets, grocery boxes, and water bottles, to name just a few ingredients.
The costumes includes “fabrics” made from plastic garbage bags, plastic straws, candy wrappers, and newspaper. 
During the run, the ART is not selling bottled water and has declined to print programs for the show, although the program can be accessed via smartphone. You know — that thing you’re not supposed to be using in the theater.
But advocacy alone — even passionate advocacy — does not a great play make.

Romi (Olivia Thirlby ) and Prakash (Babak Tafti) find love. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Romi (Olivia Thirlby ) and Prakash (Babak Tafti) find love. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

After a strong first act and a promising beginning to the second act, “O.P.C.” loses its way and gets lost in the quicksand of preachiness and the weak development of an excellent idea.
Romi Weil (Olivia Thirlby) has dropped out of Harvard and embraced the “freegan” lifestyle, squatting in an abandoned property, Web-camming a show called “Waste Not, Want Not,” finding edible food in dumpsters and living life completely off the grid.
She is a “recovering” consumer who lives off what stores and others have discarded and hasn’t consumed anything new in years.
All this is concerning to mother Smith Weil (Kate Mulligan), a district attorney running for the Senate, especially when she visits Romi and is offered a “recovered” tomato.
“I can’t eat garbage,” she wails.
But Romi, it turns out, will become an asset in the campaign when her “Fruit Skin” line of clothing — colorful, wearable and edible — becomes the foremost example of trendy “high trashion.”
As a liberal politician, Romi’s sensibilities play to Kate’s base. Costume designer Esosa has a lot of fun with the costumes — not only the fruity ones, but later seaweed dress and cornhusk shoes.
The supporting cast is strong. Michael T. Weiss is a sympathetic father by the numbers, providing a refuge for Romi from her more intense mother.
Damien is a fellow “freegan” and love interest for Romi, winningly played by Peter Porte.
Nancy Linehan Charles has some nice moments as one of Romi’s fellow dumpster divers and later as a Barbara Walters-type interviewer, while Liz Mikel is an effective Oprah-stand-in in another segment in which the media “eats up” (pun intended) Romi’s creations.
Melissa Leo was originally tabbed to play Kate before withdrawing, and Mulligan gets points for coming in on short notice and taking on a rather whiney character who appears to put winning the Senate before the welfare of her child,.
Nicole Lowrance has some nice moments as the overshadowed sister Kansas, content to help run her mother’s campaign but endlessly discontented with her place in the family, and the attention paid to Romi.
Thrilby’s Romi is always interesting and engaging, even when she veers sharply off the reservation with her infatuation with Prada, and her later meltdown.
That leads to a scene where a disembodied voice of a medical staffer informs the family that she has been diagnosed with O.P.C. — Obsessive Political Correctness —- a compulsive need to “do the right thing” when confronted with a crisis.
For Romi, radio, TV and newspapers are like a fully-stocked bar for an alcoholic and the treatment involves her being isolated from the causes of the stress.
Sex is also good for the affliction, allowing Romi to couple with a sympathetic “afflicted” freegan, Prakash (Babak Tafti).
But once having thrown O.P.C. out there, Ensler doesn’t seem know where to go with it, other than the possibility it may derail Kate‘s campaign.
After a sharp, funny first act, the second act loses steam as it plods to a mundane ending.
There’s a lot to like here, but with her handling of “O.P.C.,” Ensler has committed a theatrical version of a journalistic sin: burying the lead.
The American Repertory Theatre production of “O.P.C.” Written by Eve Ensler.
Director:Pesha Rudnick :Set, Brett J. Banakis. Costumes, Esosa. Lighting, Bradley King. Sound, Jane Shaw. Movement, Jill Johnson. Ticket price:$25-$75. Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Jan. 4.