Zoe Kazan couldn’t possibly have predicted our current state of nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea when she wrote After The Blast in the spring and summer of 2016. But its opening now in October of 2017 is a chilling reminder of the ways in which art can either mirror life or warn us of the dangers in our way.
What makes After The Blast so effective is that it is not a political diatribe. It is the very personal story of a couple who are dealing with trying to have a baby. When the curtain rises, two men are sitting on benches in an antiseptic waiting room that is unadorned but not unfamiliar, one of whom is reading a book. When Oliver (William Jackson Harper) interrupts Sam (David Pegram) and points to his book and asks “I’m sorry, but I have to ask: real or reproduction?” we quickly understand we’re not in our world. Through their casual conversation we find out that society moved underground two generations ago because of environmental destruction by nuclear fallout around the entire globe.
There’s no throwing around of blame for their situation – no mention of war, no mention of enemies, or a catastrophic event. In fact, it seems like there was a plan to take only the best and the brightest, the most genetically diverse, and be strategic about what occupations and specialties would be needed to survive underground, and then “recolonize” the earth. Everyone is pretty much on board with the program and these are minor details that are revealed in the creation of the world of the play.
The genius of Ms. Kazan’s approach to this piece is that the action of the play is centered around a couple, Oliver, who is a scientist in the Inhabitation group working to get them back up top, and Anna (Cristin Milioti), a journalist who has stopped working in order to focus on getting in shape to have a baby. In the new scheme of things, fertility is a right that is tightly controlled because resources like food and water are so precious. Couples are granted the right to try to have a baby only if their genetic and mental health tests come back positive. They are allowed to apply 5 times and if they don’t qualify after 5 attempts, they can’t apply again.
Oliver and Anna, are an extremely likeable couple, despite their problems. They face some difficult obstacles and have one more chance to apply. Ms. Kazan has created complex and dynamic characters in both of them, and a believable world that, like our own sometimes, seems to close in and leave no good options. What is particularly notable in the world Kazan presents in After the Blast, is that both main characters seem sympathetic. Neither one is wrong or right. Neither one is a hero or a villain. They’re both hurting humans trying to carve a little satisfaction out of their lives.
Everything about this production at Lincoln Center supports Ms. Kazan’s vision beautifully. First and foremost the superb talents of Cristin Milioti and William Jackson Harper as Anna and Oliver. Every interaction between the two of them was natural, believable and focused. They were completely in the moments, listening to and reacting to what the other was saying. It was a master class that every acting student in town should attend. Lila Neugebauer directed with a deft and subtle hand, keeping the pace crisp, accentuating the humor, and playing against the stereotype of a dark underground world.
To this end she was more than ably assisted by Daniel Zimmerman who designed the clean, functional, almost mid-century modern sets and Eric Southern whose lighting produced a constant glow that was thoughtful and looked as if it was carefully crafted to make people think there was sunlight just outside the high windows in every room. A shout out too, to Kaye Voyce’s simple, elegant, appropriate costumes that absolutely conveyed a sense of future, but would also not have been out of place sitting in the audience. The projection screen on the back wall that was part information center, part entertainment center added to the whole as did Lucy Mackinnon’s projections. And although this is definitely not a play for children, the child in me was as delighted with Arthur the robot, wonderfully voiced live by Will Connolly, as was Anna.
(Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
What the popular press said...
"The slender play of weighty subjects... Ms. Kazan — a vivid actress and the screenwriter of the charmingly fantastical “Ruby Sparks” — has fulfilled the first criterion of persuasive futurist fiction: She’s created a slyly detailed alternate universe that is both an extrapolation of the world we know today and its own consistent entity."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Director Lila Neugebauer’s production is sleekly designed — sets and clothes hit subtle futuristic notes — and skillfully acted. Milioti is particularly fine at capturing Anna’s intense feelings. But at 2 1/2 hours, the play loses momentum and the play becomes more pedestrian."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Milioti and Harper are excellent in the central roles, director Lila Neugebauer surrounds them with a top-drawer production and Arthur is downright merchandisable. Perhaps this is how the robot takeover of theater begins: not with a shock but with an awww."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Touching and funny, but way too long... There's a terrific 90-minute play struggling to break free at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...