After the Blast: Helping a Robot to Help Ourselves.
By AntonioNY for frontmezzjunkies
I found it far too easy to believe the given circumstances of Lincoln Center Theater’s thrilling production of After the Blast by Zoe Kazan (MTC’s We Live Here). That one day, when the human race will ultimately destroy the surface of this planet and be forced to live underground to rebuild society seems more and more possible in the challenging and complicated world that exists today. The reality that humans will have to live underground for centuries while the planet heals itself from nuclear fallout is the “new normal” for these characters. In Ms. Kazan’s smart and engaging new play, humanity once again rises to the occasion, makes the best of the situation, chooses to survive, and is working for a better tomorrow. But we quickly find out that this new world has had to create order; mainly by monitoring fertility so as not to waste precious resources and by implanting a chip in every citizen’s head in order to make life underground more palatable. This computer simulation uses the characters as server and can change the taste of their food, give them a “virtual” beach vacation, and translate a foreign language instantaneously. This “simming”, combined with a copious amount of vaping THC, has given society the ability to continue to thrive in these arctic white efficiency living spaces with large digital screens projecting images of the earth’s surface before the nuclear event. (Amazing design by Daniel Zimmerman, Sets; Eric Southern, Lighting; Lucy Mackinnon, Projections.) In this particular case, the intimate space of the Clare Tow Theater is ideal for creating this future underground world, and within that space, Ms. Kazan has created Anna, beautifully acted by Cristin Milioti (LCT3’s Stunning) who is having great difficulty in drinking the Kool-aid and is failing to be granted her “fertility” three times because of her mental health examination. Anna becomes our Dorothy and we are about to go on an incredible journey with her through OZ. The play, expertly directed by Lila Neugebauer (Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves) with such a gentle touch and a masterful focus on sequence, makes us question whether it is better to believe in the Wizard or to be brave and find a way home that is truthful to our souls.
We are first introduced to the world by Oliver, Anna’s Husband, portrayed by William Jackson Harper (Broadway’s All The Way) in a stunning performance and Sam, played by a charming David Pegram (ATC’s Animal) as they are both picking up a robot helper. Oliver, who is a scientist, is working to help with re-habitation of the earth’s surface. He shares with Sam that we are very close to this event, maybe 10-15 years away, and this fills Sam (and the audience) with great relief and expectations. Again, I found myself completely accepting of the science and trusted Oliver without a second thought.
Then we find ourselves in Anna and Oliver’s apartment and we first see Arthur, the helper robot, a truly delightful, Will Connolly (Broadway’s Once) as the voice of the robot and a fun and inventive Visual Concept by Noah Mease. Oliver is trying to convince Anna that she will actually be doing a great service to the world by helping to train this helper robot. Once it is used to working with humans, it will go to someone in great need. Anna is not easily convinced and does not want a robot in her life. She has recently quit her job to focus on the fourth and final attempt to be granted fertility but she is still struggling with depression and finding a purpose. She finally gives in to Oliver’s request and allows Arthur to stay and this becomes the moment she steps on the yellow brick road.
We watch as she slowly starts to take responsibility for this helpless robot that needs to learn everything. We are then introduced to Oliver and Anna’s good friends, Carrie & Patrick, played by Eboni Booth (MTC’s Fulfillment Center) and Ben Horner (Broadway’s The Curious Incident…), both wonderful in these roles, who have found such an easy relationship to this new world. They find the pleasures of “simming” and are now expecting their first child having been granted fertility. This is the first time we see Anna’s maternal instincts kick in and her deepening connection to Arthur. Anna is slowly transforming and as she continues to train Arthur, Arthur is able to challenge Anna to reflect on her own life. Arthur is even helping Anna prepare for her mental health examination. Arthur is a delicious creation and he certainly brought joy to Anna but also to myself. The robot used the unique theatrically of the stage and made a very “homemade, slightly C-3PO” looking robot reveal the heart at the center of the story.
Without giving away the ending, ultimately, Anna & Oliver are granted fertility and the future seems bright. Yet, Anna, whether it is by choice or compulsion, feels the need to pull back the curtain and what she finds there causes a deep wound. I think Ms. Kazan leaves us questioning how do we help someone who is unable to ask for or accept help? Is it okay to manipulate a person’s trust when you know they are depressed? Or suicidal? Ultimately, is happiness only sustainable when it is authentic? Again, I left the theater no longer in a distant future but feeling these questions are all around us in 2017. I hope that as humanity moves forward and as technology becomes more and more ingrained in our existence, we find ways to use the technology to deepen our relationships and help us experience more of our lives.