By Brian Scott Lipton
As might be expected, life after a nuclear winter will be very different as we quickly discover in Zoe Kazan’s remarkably accomplished “After the Blast,” now premiering at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater. We will all live underground in smallish apartments; water will be highly conserved; food will taste badly unless we “simulate” to be otherwise; fertility will be dictated by the government; the bleak list goes on. And, for many of us, the overwhelming question that will drive our lives is: how soon can we get back above ground.
It’s that query that dominates the existence of married couple Oliver (the excellent William Jackson Harper), a slightly taciturn scientist who spends his days attempting to solve that riddle, and Anna (the astounding Cristin Milioti in a truly heartbreaking turn), a former journalist whose constant yearning for a world she never personally knew is just one factor in her persistent depressive state.
Yet, more importantly, as Kazan reminds us, no matter how much ice is on the Earth’s surface, the fundamental challenges of marriage – honesty, trust, fidelity – will always be with us wherever we live. At its heart, “After the Blast” is a true domestic drama, one that might have interested her legendary grandfather, Elia Kazan.
In an attempt to elevate Anna’s mental state – which has heretofore prevented them from being granted the privilege of fertility – Oliver brings home a robot helper for Anna to train (which will eventually be relocated in the home of a blind child or elderly person in need). While Anna is initially resistant – she’s a woman with little interest and even less belief in technology – she eventually bonds with the robot, naming him Arthur, and treating the machine as both child and confidant. (Will Connolly, who also appears in a small role late in the play, does a superb job of voicing Arthur). But one wonders if this bond has become dangerously unbreakable – or, as is hinted, if there’s something about Arthur that Oliver has hidden from Anna.
All of this unfolds smoothly on Daniel Zimmerman’s minimalist sets under Lila Neugebauer’s expert direction, which makes the show’s 2 ½ hours feel far shorter. In addition to guiding Milioti’s indelible performance as the mercurial Anna and Harper’s moving portrayal of the troubled Oliver, she casts the show’s much smaller roles – Eboni Booth and Ben Horner as the couple’s best friends and Teresa Yenque as an elderly Spanish-speaking women – with precision.
But Kazan deserves the ultimate praise for making us look deep into our souls and ask what we would do for love and what we would do to survive. I would hardly call “After the Blast” a blast (Kazan makes this joke within the script), but I would call it necessary theatrical viewing.
“After the Blast” runs through November 19 at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theatre (150 West 65th Street). Visit www.lct.org