Not so fast. In a reversal of the joke that if men gave birth, abortion would be a sacrament, the Big Brother-ish World Power Authority still outlaws pregnancy termination. After his OB-GYN rats him out, Jason is forced to deliver the “Cry-Baby” growing inside him by means of a machine that looks like an M.R.I. scanner crossed with a Keurig. But the child, which pops out pre-swaddled, is not what anyone expected.
I won’t spoil that part of the busy plot by saying more about the Cry-Baby, except that it somehow becomes, in this full-out patriarchy, the centerpiece of a new feminist religion. By intermission, Jason and Mark are that religion’s unwilling high priests, wearing glittery robes and Ziegfeld headgear (by Dede M. Ayite) that would make a cardinal — the bird or the prelate — blush. You may blush, too, if you are a man who does not relish audience participation, as you will be asked to raise your voice in hymn to the “most merciful Goddess.” (Women aren’t given the prayer cards.)
Unfortunately, the development of this woman-and-baby-worshiping cult hijacks what seemed to be a topical comedy of gender roles and drags it around for most of the second act. Religious ideology and professions of faith, especially Catholic ones, are lampooned as idiotic and venal, but the satire will likely infuriate traditional believers of any stripe. The first of the new Ten Commandments is “Abortion is a human right.”
I wasn’t bothered by that: Surely religion is fair game for mockery. And no one should go to a Robert O’Hara play who isn’t up for some trampling of sensitivities. Deliberate outrageousness is his métier, but he’s an equal opportunity purveyor, eager to rile stray conservatives who venture into the theater, as well as their liberal antagonists.
Actually, Mr. O’Hara has always reserved his most wicked blows for the liberals, puncturing their comfortable pieties and exposing their unexamined blind spots. In “Barbecue,” seen at the Public Theater in 2015, he let the audience laugh at the down-market doings of a black family picnic before repeating the scene, verbatim, with a white family. In “Bootycandy,” an earlier satire of black theatrical tropes and the white people who love them, a stand-in character for the playwright tells audience members at a postshow talk back that he hopes they will “choke” trying to swallow what he’s written. “The work should be work,” he says.
But at their intermittent best those plays were so hilarious that the work was not work — or if work, then the highly pleasurable kind. Each had a defining gimmick that made it deliciously theatrical: a twist, Mr. O’Hara writes in a program note, “that gives the play its Shout.” So does “Mankind,” in its triumph-of-the-patriarchy premise. The problem here is that the story keeps twisting even when you need it to stay put and shout. Another switcheroo arrives every few minutes, which quickly grows as tiresome as a joker roommate and lets the satire deflate into mere sarcasm.
It’s a problem of focus. Satire is about the sharpness of the darts but also of the targets. Here there are too many targets to leave a coherent impression. Religion seems to be the intended bull’s-eye, and it’s certainly instructive to see how the church of “She” (whose name is thought to be unpronounceable) grows into a grotesque expression of mansplained feminism. So is the way casual, catty utterances of Jason and Mark are misinterpreted by apostles and transformed into dogma.
Mr. O’Hara also asks you to cackle about the vapidity of talk shows, the clichés of dystopian dialogue, bromosexuality, sexism, Trumpism and futurism itself. This pinwheel of snark feels like a stunt, and there’s little that the cast — which also includes David Ryan Smith, Ariel Shafir, Stephen Schnetzer and André De Shields — can do, under the author’s seemingly distracted direction, to keep a feeling of agitated desperation at bay. Their varying choices to play the material as serious drama or sketch comedy seem almost random.
Mr. O’Hara has said that with satire, especially now, you can’t go partway: “You have to go for the throat.” That’s probably true — and the viciousness of “Mankind” that would offend some people is perhaps its best quality. But when you go for too many throats at once, the result feels less like comedy than mayhem, and hasn’t the patriarchy already shown us enough of that?