On August 8, the playwright Jon Robin Baitz—a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (A Fair Country, Other Desert Cities) and the creator of the ABC series Brothers & Sisters—debuted the following one-act at Wake Up! Combating Climate Change, an event produced by the Ojai Playwrights Conference.
An official-looking little room high up in the mountains.
Two chairs on either side of a table. Water pitcher in the center of the table, with ice water and lots of ice. Two glasses. Seated is a plain-looking young woman, MARTA, wearing a Marni-esque summer dress. She touches the condensation on the side of the pitcher. MS. WOLF enters in a gray and vaguely military pantsuit, though could it be Prada? An old-fashioned black phone sits on the table. On the back wall is a large mirror. One has the sense that it is two-way.
MS. WOLF: Oh goodness, please, help yourself, there’s two glasses, my God, you must be parched. The trip alone …
MARTA: Thank you.
Ms. Wolf lifts out from her Launer handbag a notebook, a fountain pen, and a nectarine wrapped in an Hermès scarf. Marta drinks more.
MS. WOLF: Not so fast. Take your time, breathe, my dear. I’m Ms. Wolf and you … are Marta Konigg of District 6? Now. To cases: You are the …?
MARTA: Well, the acting representative from District 6.
MS. WOLF: Yes, but the representative from District 6 is a Mr. Myers. Officially. No?
MARTA: Yes. Well. He never came back from his mission to come here. To see you.
MS. WOLF: That’s odd. Never came back to you?
MARTA: He never showed up back home. You see. After coming here.
MS. WOLF: Hmm. So District 6 asked you … ?
MARTA: I’m actually the head of the Education Authority for the district, so given that I have official status, it was felt that it should be me.
MS. WOLF: And—not, say, the provisional district administrator?
MARTA: Well … Mr. Martón came to see someone here, and also did not return.
MS. WOLF: How would you account for it?
MARTA: I can’t really begin to conjecture.
MS. WOLF: I think that’s always wise. Not to conjecture.
MARTA: Yes. I am here about water and the whereabouts of Misters Martón and Myers.
MS. WOLF: Exactly. Water and two men. Myers and Martón.
MARTA: So, you see, we really need some sort of urgent action, because we are, as you know, running out. (beat) May I have some more? Water, please?
MS. WOLF: Please help yourself, darling, we have plenty. Going back to Martón and the other one—
MARTA: Myers. Lucien Platt Myers. A loud man. With large hands.
MS. WOLF: Well, I didn’t meet with them, certainly, and it’s my brief, so I don’t know that they would have met with anybody else.
MARTA: Well, please, could you check? I mean, Christ, you can imagine the worry back home?
MS. WOLF: I am imagining the worry right now. It must be—(beat) What’s the level at? Of worry??? The water level.
MARTA: No, you see the level is not the issue, the level is high, the table is full in fact—it’s just not suitable for drinking.
MS. WOLF: Your district was thoroughly cleared of all contaminants.
MARTA: No. That was promised some time ago, when you took over from the government.
MS. WOLF: Well, we have an entire nation here to repair after the governments ballsed it up. They were awful. Corrupt, venal. You can’t leave it to governments to protect people, as we like to say, it’s only the private sector that has the capacity, because we need our customers. Like you.
MARTA: Well. Our tests have shown that the solvent level is still too high to safely even consider the water for drinking, and we don’t have the tools to go deep—we believe that deep below—is another aquifer—a vast undisturbed one—but on the upper aquifer—which is all we can access—there’s lots of runoff from the river at District 7 …
MS. WOLF: We don’t do District 7. They never signed. Nor did District 8. Which is too bad, this waiting game because they have a fucking water table loaded with lithium water, which is in very high demand, calms people right down, all of us here are mad for the stuff. Have you ever had it?
MARTA: No. Yes, but 7’s water comes from District 5, which you DO in fact run. My district is downstream. Benzine. Runoff from septics. Aluminum, arsenic. Barium. Beryllium. Cadmium. Nickel. Thallium. Zinc.
MS. WOLF: You memorized it alphabetically! How impressive.
MARTA: I am hopeful we can resolve this and you can send us at least one of your tankers right away, at least one 36,000-gallon tanker. And twice a week thereafter. And I promise you, I’ll get my district into compliance.
MS. WOLF: And, of course, you went to those idiots at District 7 already, because they should be supplying you with water based on their runoff fucking up yours?
MARTA (carefully): They too have run out of water, you must know that.
MS. WOLF: Yeah. I dated someone once from District 7; he was terribly fierce, but then in bed rather less so, which I found interesting. In bed, he would quite often cry from some reaction to coming, as though he had had a transcendent experience and I became quite cold and detached and after I really had stopped being attracted to him, I still used to fuck him out of sheer fascination. “Is he going to boo-hoo again???” But of course the transactional nature of it probably wore him down, and he ended up being quite small, which is something I have seen in my dealings with District 7; they are fierce, they cry, and then, in my experience, they simply wither. Like an octopus left out of its tank, to dry out.
MARTA (amused): … Am I to extract a parable in this story, Ms. Wolf?
MS. WOLF: YES! I am proud to say that the Corporation’s entire executive C-suite is NOW made up of women. (beat) Indulge me in a little bit of social science, would you? Because now social engineering is part of our brief. Your district. Its demographic is interesting: You have 18 percent of the people native to the area, in sort of an aboriginal sense—
MARTA: Oh, call them what they fucking are. Cave people. Please. Who smell of calcified and macerated shit. A tourist attraction.
MS. WOLF: Well, I’m trying not to get in trouble with H.R. because language is still a touchy subject—but the—fine—“shit-smelling cave people.” You have 40 percent—citizens—12 percent legal immigrants, 14 percent “other” ethnicities but naturalized, but a full 36 percent … well—stateless. Because—
MARTA: … We were a sanctuary district, yes. I wasn’t for it, but we were.
MS. WOLF: And where it gets messy and mucky and murky is the inescapable fact that you fuckers are supplying water to non-customers. Greasers, Levantines, subcontinentals, even the—I mean—you even had—you took in Americans—how stupid must you be to take them in? Americans—ugghh!
MARTA: The Americans, you can see how they lost it all, and they still think they’re so special! The ones under 40 cry endlessly, sort of unable to process the loss of their everything. Do you know what my bright idea was to keep them busy? Access to computers so they write comments, complaints about everything, endless commentary from anonymous American youth talking about what was problematic for them—
Ms. WOLF: Oh yes, we love the comments sections, it keeps them all busy! “The water tasted metallic, how do we know the effect of your water on the unborn,” and so on … “We don’t like your hiring practices” and we encourage them to bang on and on and on.
MARTA: Look, it wasn’t my idea to have camps filled with these people—you know I don’t want to be arguing for the refugees? Five and a half liters per day was the agreed upon …
MS. WOLF: We never agreed here at the company on five liters, that was some figure the relief organizations came up with and we sort of shrugged and nodded and said, “O.K., well, if you say so.” Our research shows that a human can live with well under five bloody liters of water per day!
MARTA: Have you seen what happens to a municipality when people are dying of thirst? Have you?
MS. WOLF: Yup. All you really have to do is guarantee that the units of water will not be going to the nonsubscribers because they need to apply to the refugee program, which is in Building 12, and they need to do so in person, which means that twenty-three hundred and forty-two men, women, and children must come here for processing. And if you can get them to agree to do so—well—the rest of you can have the five liters a day.
MARTA: So you—what? Just—what will you do with them?
MS. WOLF: Do with them? We’ll fête them and give them champagne cocktails and fucking lingonberries! Look, they will be offered jobs and beds at the desalination facilities dotting the coastline, and if they can’t bestir themselves to partake in anything other than putting out their hands then their hands will be chopped off—!!—metaphorically speaking. As you know, they’re dug into their camps. Can you get them to get on the trains?
MARTA: If the U.N. isn’t watching, sure. I’m a pragmatist, I’m realistic, when this all began, I told our district council to stop being so softhearted and they booed me, and called me a fucking racist, so I’m not gonna sit here and defend a bunch of hideous and profoundly ungrateful stateless masses gathered in refugee centers, sapping what we do have. (beat) I hate my district.
MS. WOLF: Your district is a problem. I will admit, my dear. I don’t envy you. Though you had lovely dairy. Best Gouda in the whole country—whole continent.
MARTA: We used to, until the water and the cows—it was—but—it’s all these fucking assholes in hippy sandals and the smell of sandalwood and churches opening their doors and basements for the fleeting—and meanwhile—it’s unsustainable. I just want them gone.
The phone rings. Ms. Wolf smiles and picks up, listens, nodding.
MS. WOLF (looks behind her): Right??? (beat) I know. Finally, you see—I said it: “All you have to do is stand firm and someone will emerge who gets it,” and there you have it, may she be the first of many.
She hangs up. A light behind the mirror reveals that there is a vast corporate conference room behind the glass, and two dozen women in suits similar to Ms. Wolf are sitting there, observing.
MARTA (to the women on the other side of the glass): He was my brother-in-law, you know, Martón. Wept for the disadvantaged, prayed for them, worked for them, meanwhile our citizens suffer because he wishes for there to be a family of man, one family of man, ridiculous piffle.
MS. WOLF: I do think people are coming to understand that nothing can now be fully repaired.
MARTA: And water is not a right, not a human right. Your late chairman was not wrong.
MS. WOLF: He might have phrased it better but… he’s gone. O.K. then.
A woman, thin, in a worn gray worker’s uniform, more of a prisoner’s uniform—enters with a dolly upon which are cases of bottled NESTLÉ water. A giant red ribbon is wrapped around them.
Ms. Wolf offers a large bottle to Marta.
MS. WOLF: Here—for the trip. The Nestlé brand. A brand that still instills hope and comfort. I think we understand one another. Go back to your people. Tell them to wait. Tell them water is coming. When you arrive back at the administrative offices in your district as a show of good faith, hand out these bottles of water. (beat) It is done. You may go. If anyone stops you on the road home, show them this document.
Hands Marta a document with a massive seal on it, absurd in the manner of a Saul Steinberg thing.
She HUGS Marta.
MARTA: I TOLD them they had to send me. They had to send a woman, a woman who was one of them. Believe me, from now on, it’s me you do business with. These people. They don’t understand market forces.
MS. WOLF: Safe journeys back, really, look forward to a long and productive relationship.
Marta leaves. Followed by the worker with the dolly of water. Ms. Wolf turns to the glass wall.
MS. WOLF: Right? See? Each one they send, each fucking pig—I told you, would be a little bit more malleable, right? The first one, he was one thing, screaming at us and pointing—the second, Martón—a lot less so, a little anxious, and finally you see the curve—they send one who really gets it. BUT NOW it’s too late!
And the next one, ladies? The next one they send? When Marta doesn’t return? The next one. She’ll be begging us. And still, after that, when they are afraid to send any more simpering supplicants here to beg, because finally they realize—you send someone—they don’t come back!
Then we make a deal. Right? When there’s nobody left to negotiate with, that’s when you make the deal, that’s when you go in and tap the billions of gallons in the lower aquifer—so deep—so deep and clear and clean, well past the layers of filth and pollution—cold, filtered by miles of rock and limestone and shale and quartz—an underground ocean for those of us who remain. Now, ladies. Who’s next? God. I need a vacation—somewhere with snow!
The door is opened and a MAN is brought in. Ms. Wolf smiles.
Ahh, you must be Mr. Shapiro from District 2.
MAN: … Shephard, actually.
MS. WOLF: Sit down, Mr. Shapiro. Would you like a glass of water? Don’t worry, darling—
(She smiles as the man sits.)
—It’s the good stuff.