REVIEW: A grim, subterranean future in “After the Blast”

REVIEW: A grim, subterranean future in “After the Blast”

Ozone obliterated.  Water poisoned.  Nuclear fallout causing a global freeze.  Humankind living underground as subterranean refugees.  This is the grim, not-so-unbelievable future imagined by actor and playwright Zoe Kazan in her new play, “After the Blast”, which opened Monday night at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center. 

This latest entry in Lincoln Center Theatre’s wonderful LCT3 program summons a post-apocalyptic future where man has destroyed the prospect of continued life on earth’s surface.  The blast in “After the Blast” is never directly explained, but with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un trading insults and threatening mutual destruction it’s not difficult to fathom, and is beside the point.  The setting serves as a clever and engrossing device for exploring a host of moral, ethical, political, and existential questions, heightening the stakes for our characters and creating a science fiction milieu that feels hauntingly prophetic.

At its core, this play is about one woman’s struggle with depression.  Anna (Cristin Milioti) and Oliver (William Jackson Harper) are married, third generation residents of 33 9D AW (the American West).  He’s a scientist on a top-secret team working to rehabilitate earth’s surface; she’s taking time off to prepare for their third, and last, application for fertility, her suicidal tendencies having foiled the first two.  Reproduction is highly regulated underground, with only a portion of earth’s population having been chosen to survive, so selected for their genetic diversity and desired talents.  As Anna jokes, they’ve literally been buried alive, and she’s come to see little reason to want to continue living.

The handsome sets by David Zimmerman and effective lighting by Eric Southern provide an eerily sterile, closed circuit environment for the story to unfold, complete with an oppressive ceiling and futuristic Scandinavian vibe.  It’s a believable and harmoniously designed environment that is bafflingly interrupted by the introduction of a ridiculous looking “Helper 1.3” robot Oliver brings home from work, ostensibly to give Anna company and a hobby. 

The Helper 1.3—named Arthur by Anna—has been designed to assist the growing blind population (adaptation to the darkness underground), but Oliver thinks training it might help Anna overcome her depression.  I applaud the decision to include a robot as a major character in a stage play, but the execution of this bot’s design and locomotion is lackluster and anachronistic to the advanced, aesthetically sleek technology employed elsewhere.  If we are to believe that the humans in this play spend upwards of 80% of their lives in simulated virtual reality, surely they can design a robot smoother than the ones George Lucas hobbled together in 1977.  The clunky design (think tin canister with splotches of bright yellow carpet) prevents an emotional connection to Arthur, robbing the play of the dramatic impact it could hold.

As a playwright, Ms. Kazan has a good ear for dialogue and an impressive skill for creating a universe and doling out exposition, but much of the plot in this play is predictable, and the two hours and 15 minute runtime belabors the point.  However, the performances, under the able direction of Lila Neugebauer, are exquisite, especially Ms. Milioti’s Anna, the emotional fulcrum of the piece.  Playing depressed isn’t easy, nor is extended scene work with a robot for a partner.  Ms. Milioti nails both. 

If the particulars of the play are less impactful than they might be, after two plus hours observing these underground dwellers, you start thinking their reality is yours; their predicament yours, too.  That’s impressive writing, acting, direction, and creative design – especially for a theatre located several stories above ground!

Bottom Line: “After the Blast” by Zoe Kazan provides a well-acted story that imagines a grim, post-apocalyptic future underground where our characters grapple with depression and search for life’s meaning and purpose.  Oh, and there’s a robot in the cast.
After the Blast
Claire Tow Theatre (LCT3)
Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes (including one intermission)
Opening Night: October 23, 2017
Final Performance: November 19, 2017
All Tickets $30

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