Review: Second Stage Theatre’s ‘The Apiary’: Stinging or Sweet As Honey?

Set 22 years from now — as climate change has doomed the bees and thus humanity — this high-concept play mixes sci-fi with black comedy.

Carmen M. Herlihy and April Matthis in The Apiary. Joan Marcus

The Apiary | 1hr 15mins. No intermission. | Second Stage Theatre’s Tony Kiser Theater | 305 West 43rd Street | 212-392-1818

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Science fiction may be a natural fit for movies and TV, where budgets allow CGI world-building and eye-popping F/X, but the genre flourishes in humbler forms of storytelling. Caryl Churchill probed the existential horror behind cloning in A Number and Jordan Harrison walked the uncanny valley with aide-mémoire androids in Marjorie Prime. Where does The Apiary rank among futuristic stage work? In Kate Douglas’s dark farce set a persnickety 22 years from now, bee populations are shrinking (even more) due to climate change. A pair of technicians who run a synthetic apiary think they’ve found a solution. But it’s going to take a lot of human corpses. The scientific stakes are fairly high—Earth is, um, dying—but after 75 minutes of tonal wobble, you may flit from Second Stage Theatre with little to buzz about.

The Kate Whoriskey–directed production is part of Second Stage’s inaugural Next Stage Festival, which gives emerging playwrights an extra bump of prestige by opening in the institution’s midtown home. A piece such as The Apiary—compact, high in concept but green in execution—would make sense in the more intimate Uptown series on 78th Street, where the offerings are promising if rarely excellent. Douglas aims high by focusing her grim environmental fable through the lens of workplace farce and veering into pathos toward the end, but shiny design and an overqualified cast only highlight its limitations.

Taylor Schilling and Nimene Wureh in The Apiary. Joan Marcus

Zora (all-star April Matthis) is a new employee at the apiary where high-strung supervisor Gwen (Taylor Schilling) and earnest woman-child Pilar (Carmen M. Herlihy) feed and study endangered honey bees. (Healthy bee populations mean robust, pollinated crops for humans.) With her PhD in biochemistry and a longstanding admiration for the fuzzy insects, Zora wants to make a difference. First she surrounds the artificial colonies with fake flowers to stimulate activity. No good. When their co-worker Cece (Nimene Wureh) is found dead on the floor one morning (stage four thyroid cancer), everyone is shocked. Then Zora discovers bees hiving in Cece’s torso, and suddenly the queen’s egg-laying goes through the roof. Zora’s hypothesis: “The bees consumed and stored the flesh, like they would pollen. And the queen was breeding like mad in there.” So, behind Gwen’s back, Zora and Pilar begin to recruit women with terminal cases of cancer to donate their mortal coil to science. All of this is played, more or less, for ostensible laughs. When Gwen announces that the Netherlands is shipping five million bees to their lab, Zora and Pilar do the math and start freaking out.

Occasionally, Douglas cuts to Cece at a support group for cancer patients talking about her mother’s superstitious belief that you must tell bees about all the good and bad happening in your life or they’ll sicken and stop producing honey. (Over the course of the play Wureh portrays three other “volunteers.”) During transitions between scenes, a dancer (Stephanie Crousillat) pops up inside the apiary’s “graveyard”—an enclosed glass area —to writhe and shimmy like a bee. Wearing skintight gray leggings and a gas mask, the lithe and sinewy Crousillat is a macabre but engaging sight. She is also, unfortunately, emblematic of Whoriskey’s tendency to throw ideas against the wall to buck up a sketchy text. 

April Matthis and Carmen M. Herlihy in The Apiary. Joan Marcus

The strained black comedy and one-note characters (Zora is controlling; Pilar is naïve; Gwen is selfish) would be forgivable if the world-building were credible or sustained. We get hints the climate is broken and all the research money is going into space exploration, but the latter point is used mostly as a punch line. It’s not remotely believable that Zora and Pilar would find dozens of willing suicides, much less smuggle them past security and keep them in the lab long enough for bees to colonize them. Much is made of the oppressive bosses “upstairs,” (cue actors actually tilting their heads up), but if we’re living in a bureaucratic dystopia, the CCTV is on the fritz.

It’s a pity, because there is poetry at the center of Douglas’s vision: bees thrive when they feast on dead people. A metonym for the Anthropocene: enfeebled nature can only dance on humanity’s grave. Would-be weighty but disappointingly slight, The Apiary apologizes for its morbid topic with jarring zaniness and a twee last gesture at healing. There are valid ideas zipping through in the air—what constitutes a good death, can we be saved by communal matriarchy—but they lack a solid framework. Too much honey, not enough comb. 

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Review: Second Stage Theatre’s ‘The Apiary’: Stinging or Sweet As Honey?