Some plays give up all their secrets in the first 150 words—the 106-word prologue to Romeo and Juliet might be the most famous example—which is a welcome relief from the mystery novels, thriller movies, football games, afterlife-obsessed religions, and other cultural institutions predicated on the inane premise that we're only interested in stories as long as we don't know what's going to happen. (Spoiler alert: We all die at the end.)
But exactly 106 words into Joshua Conkel's Sprawl—a world premiere by Washington Ensemble Theatre and the inaugural production of the new 12th Avenue Arts building—Shawna, a pregnant real-estate agent giving the audience a tour of a cookie-cutter suburban home, lays down the premise of the entire play. "A new home might well contain defects," she tells us sagely. "Sometimes a house can seem like one thing but be another thing entirely."
Sprawl repeats that thesis early and often: There's a thin veneer of civilization separating our public personalities from our actual desires. All it takes is a little bit of catastrophe to send our hearts of darkness hurtling toward the surface for everyone to see. In this case, the required disaster is a massive earthquake followed by an invasion of insects that crawl up from the center of the earth and bite people, turning them into zombie-like insect-human hybrids who will prepare the way for some alien overlords. Or something. That's not the important part. The important part is how fucked up people are when confronted by adversity.
For his swipe at the disaster genre, Conkel summons a menagerie of clichés—all pretty easy targets—and sends them, Night of the Living Dead–style, into a totally unremarkable house to take refuge against a disaster, then lets us watch as the social fissures between them become gaping rifts. But Sprawl's most insightful moments happen just before the disaster—for example, the fraught conversation between a gay couple called "the Williams" in the car en route: "I can't stand Monique," William 1 (a delightfully disillusioned Justin Huertas) confesses to William 2 (a merrily ditzy Ben McFadden). "She's one of those people that, like, prides herself on being honest. Like, 'I just call them like I see them' ... It's like, 'You're not that honest. You're just a bitch who likes to hurt people's feelings for no reason.' It's cruelty disguised as honesty."
Directed by Ali el-Gasseir, Sprawl is a bit of fluffy camp whose best jokes are fast and cheap, such as Monique (a wide-eyed Samie Spring Detzer), in the midst of the invasion, telling us that her favorite book is Eat, Pray, Love—but pronouncing it "Eat PREY, Love." The first production at 12th Avenue Arts probably won't be its most memorable, but as a diversion, it's pleasant enough.