The title of Zoe Kazan’s new play, After the Blast, suggests a single dramatic event. The best and brightest minds have decamped underground for survival, refugees from an uninhabitable earth. What caused this migration? Nuclear fallout? A worldwide terrorist catastrophe? In Lila Neugebauer’s assured production for LCT3, the audience quickly learns that Kazan’s title functions as a red herring. A thousand co-existing cataclysms caused the destruction of the known world, but what followed is even more complicated.
In the hopes of one day returning to a livable planet, human society has been painstakingly replicated in the bunker, hueing closely to life as lived by the last “aboveground” generation. People go to work, families are made, houses are kept. Kazan does not establish a timeframe, but Daniel Zimmerman’s creepily recognizable sets draw from our current moment in history. The blindingly white apartment shared by Anna (Cristin Milioti) and Oliver (William Jackson Harper) resembles the sterile units you’d find in any high-rise building in cities across America. But something feels off. Perhaps it’s the wall-length television screen that beams forth a steady stream of scenescapes (projections by Lucy MacKinnon) from a world they’ve never experienced. It all looks familiar enough to be unsettling.
Oliver works in “Environmental Solutions.” He’s among the select few tasked with healing the wounded ecosystem, with an ultimate goal towards “re-habitation.” His motives aren’t merely altruistic; Anna suffers from lifelong depression, which stems from her feeling trapped below-ground. Her mental health has impeded their efforts to have a child. (Like everything in a futuristic society, fertility is regulated, and children who may inherit their parents’ flaws are seen as wastes of limited resources). If Oliver and his team can engineer a plausible return in the near-future, he and Anna may also achieve the life they desire in the present tense.
In the meantime, Oliver tries to lift Anna’s mood through a project: he brings home a “helper” robot for her to train. Reluctant at first, Anna gradually throws herself into language acquisition and movement coaching for the cyborg, whom she names Arthur. By the end of the first act, he responds to commands, and can assist Anna in performing household tasks. She dons a blindfold and Arthur guides her through making a cup of tea — practice for when Arthur is re-homed, as helper to a blind child. Anna’s staid and dreary personality blossoms thanks to her robotic companion; she becomes the mother she’s always wanted to be.
Perhaps the most surprising and daring element of After the Blast is how natural this all feels. The first act unfolds primarily through a series of short scenes between Anna and Arthur (voiced live by the actor Will Connolly, who also plays a small role in the second act) that function almost like a dystopian take on Pygmalion. Somewhere along the way, the lines blur in the teacher/student relationship; is the human teaching the robot how to be useful, or is the robot teaching the human how to be human? Milioti plays with this ambiguity in her line readings, which alternate between cold, affectless speech and joyous effusion.
Although Harper plays Oliver with an understandable mixture of warmth and exasperation, the character remains largely unknowable. The same is true of the supporting cast, a collection of neighbors, friends, and colleagues skillfully played by Eboni Booth, Ben Horner, David Pegram, and Teresa Yenque. They exist primarily to magnify and mirror the trials and tribulations of Anna’s life. Carrie (Booth), pregnant and happy, has a life Anna desires but can’t let herself achieve. Margarita (Yenque, who’s particularly affecting), one of the last surviving people who lived aboveground, can summon memories of earth that Anna can only picture by “Simming,” a form of virtual reality now directly embedded in the brain. Neugebauer’s direction foregrounds intimacy in these interactions, and Milioti approaches each with a quiet desperation that never feels overwrought.
The play occasionally veers into melodrama in the second act, once the audience starts to realize that underneath the futuristic framework lies a fairly standard-issue domestic drama. Kazan also waits too long to introduce the concrete specifics of earth’s fallout, which end up feeling shoehorned into a bathetic final scene. At other times, though, she ties together strands of plot with surgical precision; a hopeful moment that occurs almost in passing in the first act is revealed for its artifice deep in the second, to a devastating effect.
Earlier in the play, still starved for companionship, Anna teaches Arthur the words to the Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream.” Their voices blend — hers breathy and tentative, his flatly metallic. The people around me laughed. I thought it just might be the saddest thing I see on a stage this year.
After the Blast runs until November 19th. For more details, click here.