On an uncomfortably hot evening in November—the Day of the Dead to be exact—a group of thirtysomething friends convene in a house in the trendy Silver Lake hills of Los Angeles and proceed to melt down ensemble, as their anxieties blurt out, stack and compound like debt. They worry about career success in Hollywood, about the decision to have a child, sexuality, identity, and yes, global warming—hence the play’s clever title.
At the center are married couple Calder (Nate Corddry), a promising writer-director, and Abigail (Jennifer Mudge), an actress. The worries come like embers blown in on the Santa Ana wind: will Calder’s newest movie, based on a true-life female polar explorer, be greenlit by the studio? Will he have to cast an A-list name, rather than giving the lead part to his wife, who, at 35, is still booking mostly commercials and bit parts and looking for her big break? Will Abigail get pregnant? The couple have been “trying” for some time, and her period is late.
So far, mundane fretting at the end of the work day. But Abigail is also harried by a dread of climate change, and spends too much time on the internet looking up the grim facts of melting ice, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and the coming collapse of planktonic food webs. As these worries begin to overwhelm Abigail, the couple’s close friends gather in their picture-perfect Silver Lake house: Reed (Keith Powell), an old school buddy of Calder’s, now an unlikely, nerdy black paleontologist from Missouri, who is visiting LA for a conference; Molly (Rebecca Henderson), Abigail’s girlfriend who very recently and precipitously married a younger woman, a woman who she is now fretfully contemplating divorcing because the new wife rejects her cat, Taco; and finally Nicky (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), Calder’s agent, a smooth-talking, tight-suited avatar of the type who is one of the best California characters since Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, gleefully zinging the business lingo and insincerity, while simultaneously holding out the golden promise of Kirsten Dunst accepting the lead in Calder’s movie and right-swiping his Tinder screen.
Smith, a veteran playwright who is also a TV writer for The Affair on Showtime, has a deft hand at sitcom banter and laugh lines, at moments winding the action up into frenzied, manic, often hilarious crescendos. And LA is there is all its legendary superficiality: the latest buzzwords, attitudes, poses, and tech—Instagram and Tinder and smartphones handled nervously and continuously, like rosary beads. But there is method: by considering the city’s superficiality profoundly, Smith employs it like a portraitist’s brush to delineate the true contours of her demographic, her industry, and the anxieties of our time. And she uses them to burrow deeper, driving a spiral of worry and revelation that cuts to the heart of our confidence in who we are, exposing our essential fragility and barely-buried fear that in the unnerving evening heat, everything could melt down around us.
At times the play’s preaching on the serious themes of global warming, parental responsibility, and racism is too much, and as a result the action drags, with the lessons overwhelming the characters. But mostly Smith manages the impressive feat of integrating TV-style situation comedy, often riotous, with weighty themes of love, career, life, death, and the acceptance of loss—symbolized by the cheap Day of the Dead skeleton costumes the friends dance maniacally in, a little buzzed, and the tarot card Death that Abigail picks from Molly’s deck twice in two days. And there is progress: acceptance, and softening; Nicky the agent’s arc in particular is touching, and hopeful.
The cast, too, strikes the right balance of confidence and vulnerability, evidently enjoying the material and the play. Icebergs is a fine-grained photograph of a slice of Southern California life in the Obama, now Trump, era, of alternating hope and foreboding, levity and fear, soaked in the hipster LA sunshine.