After the Blast
Zoe Kazan's new play follows one woman's sad life in a nuclear fallout shelter.
Can you really blame someone for being a little depressed after a nuclear holocaust? The protagonist of Zoe Kazan's new postapocalyptic play, After the Blast, is going through an existential crisis that seems slightly more justified considering humanity's existence is hanging in the balance. If that makes this world premiere at LCT3 sound terribly exciting, rest assured that it's often not. Full of sensitive insights and glimmers of horror, this domestic drama still moves at the sluggish pace of a recluse who refuses to change out of her pj's.
Perhaps that has to do with the setting, which is not a fiery hellscape populated by radioactive zombies, but a hermetically sealed bunker deep beneath Earth's surface, somewhere near what was formerly Great Falls, Montana. We learn that several similar colonies exist around the world, constructed by the U.N. for the purpose of safeguarding an elite remnant of humanity until the nuclear fallout clears. Several generations have passed since the blast, meaning that our characters have never known a life above ground beyond what they experience through simulation (or "sim") produced by the microchips in their brains.
Our protagonist, Anna (Cristin Milioti), doesn't like to sim. She thinks that her husband, Oliver (an appropriately aloof William Jackson Harper), has a similar aversion, but that's only because they're not actually communicating. Oliver is a scientist working to rebuild Earth's ecology, while Anna is a former journalist who mopes around their tiny living unit all day. Oliver would like to have a child, but Fertility (which is some kind of government agency) has rejected their application for pregnancy because of Anna's questionable mental health. Oliver hopes Anna will fill the void in her life by training Arthur (impressively voiced by Will Connolly), a robot designed to help blind children.
Undoubtedly, that robot is the thing everyone will remember about After the Blast. Props wizard Noah Mease designed the visual concept, which looks like R2D2 in a Snuggie. It rolls around the stage after Anna like a puppy or precocious child, learning to speak and becoming her constant companion. Strange as it may sound, Milioti and the robot have the most natural chemistry of anyone in the cast.
Anna is the kind of person you would generally avoid in a social situation, but we cannot help growing to like her as performed by Milioti. Her eyes light up and she flashes a disarming grin as she opens up to the robot in a way she never really does with any of the human characters. Considering how frightfully dull they all are, we cannot really fault her for that either.
Kazan's play contains echoes of earlier (and more fully realized) science fiction, from H.G. Wells's The Time Machine to Jennifer Haley's The Nether. It is a dark vision of the future, in which art and literature are deprioritized, meaning that non-scientific people like Anna are similarly devalued. A quiet horror emerges from the cracks in Kazan's dialogue as we learn that this is a society in which eugenics is the state religion and undesirable fetuses are aborted. We may gasp at the way the characters casually discuss these things, but we really shouldn't be surprised considering the foundational event of this society was the incineration of most of humanity. It makes you one wonder about the horrible things in our own society that mostly go unexamined.
Director Lila Neugebauer realistically creates this sunless world in a sleek and professional production. Set designer Daniel Zimmerman fashions Oliver and Anna's unit in the oppressively neutral colors of a doctor's office, with maximum storage space for bags of water and large canisters of vitamins (it is still bigger and nicer than most New York City apartments). Kaye Voyce's Gap activewear costumes definitely look like they belong to a world without fashion designers. Eric Southern masterfully illuminates a setting without natural light, in which comforting incandescence can never really compensate for the real thing. After two hours and 30 minutes in this dreary place, we are thankful that we're able to return to our lives on the earth's surface.