Opening Night on the Taxpayer’s Dime

Review: The Traveling Government Global Warming Play

Polar bear
April 15, 2014

The play has a fitting name, in a sense: The Great Immensity. The great, extremely large waste of taxpayer money to bring "Global Warming: the musical" to the stage.

The National Science Foundation’s four-year $700,000 pet project debuted in New York City Friday night, in an auditorium the size of a movie theater.

It promised to be a "continent-hopping thriller" that will spur a dialogue about the need to act on climate change. Indeed, the six-actor cast does their best to convince the audience they are in Panama, Canada, and Paris by moving around two tables, four chairs, and a few partitions that make up the set. It’s hard to see how we got our money’s worth.

"For me the thing that is the central question of the play is, what would it take for us to appreciate the immediacy and importance and urgency of all these questions about the environment?" said the play’s writer and director Steve Cosson.

The answer includes singing and dancing about a carrier pigeon named Margaret and the not so subtle message that the planet will be destroyed in 50 years.


Before the show yuppie hipsters congregate in the "Library," a dimly lit restaurant bar where they can drink for 20 percent off by presenting their ticket. You can overhear conversations such as, "What defines consumer?"

A sign in the bathroom at the Public Theater notifies patrons that due to its "sustainability program" there are no paper towels. "We appreciate your help in keeping our building green!" it says, with pats on the back all around.

Inside the play, the audience is mostly made up of former hippies, and young Obama voters, who likely won’t have their worldview changed by viewing The Great Immensity.

In giving $697,177 to "The Civilians," a Brooklyn theater company, the National Science Foundation intended the play to be for "Climate Change Education." The company has received grants since August 2010, and the funding stream will not run out until this July.

The theater receives generous charitable contributions, such as over $500,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Its Board of Trustees includes Anne Hathaway, Kevin Kline, and Liev Schreiber. Morgan Freeman is part of the "Honorary Council," and Mayor Bill de Blasio is listed as "Ex-Officio."

Still, federal funding is going to special "outreach efforts in each community where the play is staged," hoping that theaters across the country will run their own versions of the play. At the Public Theater on opening night, the so-called "community outreach" was a woman sitting at a table, with packets of information about the "investigative research" that went into the play’s plot.

The play had its first run in Kansas City in 2012, but the production took two more years until its debut in lower Manhattan. Maybe Red, White, and Blaine could have made it to New York, too, with a grant from the federal government.


The story revolves around Karl (Marx?), who has been kicked off Nature Channel’s Shark Week because he hijacked the program, using it to make a point about climate change. People shouldn’t be terrified of sharks, he explains, they should be terrified that sharks aren’t killing more people. Something about their population dying due to, what else, global warming.

After the Shark Week "debacle," Karl is having an identity crisis in Barro Colorado Island, in the middle of the Panama Canal. He still has his camera gear, so he decides to start interviewing the local environmentalists.

There’s Allie, a plant ecologist on the island, and Rob, who is first and foremost described as "Allie’s husband." Somewhat of a dunce, Rob is also a plant ecologist. They study baby leaves.

Karl says the interviews are for a "fuck that experiment," meaning he can "do whatever" he wants.

He then meets Julie, a rather foul-mouthed 15 year-old girl who is willing to "set herself on fire" to send a message about climate change.

A blonde, fair-skinned millennial, Julie has plenty of lines about Twitter and her quest to become famous. She sings the first number, in a rather annoying high-pitched voice, about floods and polar bears. They’re "getting hungry because the ice is melting," the song goes.

Scenes of Detroit show the city all gone, Julie starts fading out, repeating "this is a picture …" until there are no more pictures. The message: Nothing will be spared from global warming’s wrath.

Julie is an "Earth Ambassador," a United Nations sanctioned group of teenagers from every country devoting their lives to climate change. She is frustrated that her fellow citizens of the world aren’t as worked up about the issue as she is, and is tired of waiting around to get the message out.

"It’s not just about information. It’s out there," she says. "It’s about hearts and minds."

Karl shares her convictions. "We are actually breaking the world," he says. "We break the world and it’s done. Game over."

It takes a while for Karl, the pessimist who has no faith that the government will "make the right decision," to get on the bandwagon.

But Julie is apparently persuasive, saying things like this is "our last chance" to cut carbon emissions, and they need a messaging campaign. "Something like, ‘Now is the time.’"

"But the problem is still them," she says. "It’s the audience.

"People are stupid."

"People are human," Karl adds.

Through Julie, Karl hooks up with the "ship spotters," an Anonymous-like group of hackers, for a master plan that will culminate at the next international climate summit in Paris.

In what Julie calls the "hive mind," Karl’s videos are being shared in the online climate change underground to other disciples who are creating a "map to the future," so they can "flip the switch" in the minds of millions of people.

The ship spotters sum up their views with a chorus:

We are young

We do not forget

We do not forgive

We are more powerful than nations

We can stop them

We can fuck up everything

We are legion

"I’m in," Karl says. "I can’t go back to my normal life, now. Yes, I miss it, I miss my wife, I want to have kids but if I went back now, who knows I might forget about all this, or adjust maybe to ‘normal life.’"

After all, "we have probably the next 50 years, really just 50 years before all of these conservation issues will be resolved, one way or the other, it’ll be a done deal," says Rob. "Whatever’s not protected will just be gone."


Meanwhile, Karl’s wife Phyllis is desperately searching for him, since he dropped off the face of the earth after he left Shark Week. The couple was trying to have a baby before he left but was struggling with infertility.

The play jumps back and forth between Karl’s epiphany, Phyllis’s quest to find him, and musical numbers, including a lounge style love song to endangered species, a song about Martha, "the last living carrier pigeon in the world" in the Cincinnati Zoo, lyrics like "sea soaked teddy bears," and a refrain that repeats throughout the show: "the world is wide and the world is so small."

The "Declaration of the United Nations" number opens with "man’s impact on earth threatens peace in our time," and a trio sings "Economic inequality will be no more, once richer nations help the poor."

Phyllis finally catches up with Karl in Churchill, Manitoba, in the second act. They upgrade the set to make it appear as if they’re in a lodge in Churchill, the polar bear capitol of the world. All the same actors remain, but the supporting actors play different roles.

Karl tells Phyllis what he’s been up to, and that he can’t ever see her again. He has to smuggle himself and hundreds of U.N. kids onto the "Great Immensity," a Chinese cargo ship. They’re going to "disappear" and send demands to Paris, where a climate summit is taking place. Somehow this is supposed to convince world leaders to radically change their political and economic systems to respond to climate change.

Karl tells Phyllis he has to think about future generations. He’s a citizen of the world now, and can’t be bothered to weather the storm with his wife as they try to conceive a child. But he does give Phyllis a jar of his frozen sperm. He thinks of everything.

"What about me? The life we promised to each other?" Phyllis pleads.

"What you wish and what I wish—none of that matters anymore," he says. "We have to get the pictures and tell that story. I’m going because I want to go."

But Phyllis’s selfish desires do not last long. In Paris, three days later, she is urging the world to do something about global warming. "This is different. We screw it up bad enough, these decisions do matter."

A sermon of alarmism, the play attempts to emulate the feeling one has when leaving church: Repent for your sins to the planet and vow to change your lifestyle.

The collective, not the individual, is what is important, as Karl’s decision demonstrates. And throughout, the characters say the debate is over, there is a scientific consensus that every drought, flood, tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or blizzard is the result of climate change.

Phyllis is selfish because she would rather her husband stay with her so they can have children than jet off on a crusade with hundreds of little girls and ultimately disappear with them.

It’s not clear if they are successful. The play ends with Karl’s first solo number, a sad, lonely tune about lost hope. "I don’t want to be the last one with my little blue recycling box," he cries.

Then move to San Francisco.