Is it odd that someone as prodigiously talented as Zoe Kazan has a thing for avatars of human consciousness? In 2012’s Ruby Sparks, the film she also wrote, she played a blocked novelist’s idealized woman come to life. It was a male-chauvinist fantasy – Ruby is beautiful, submissive, empty – that morphed into a nightmare, or at least a cautionary tale along the lines of “be careful what you wish for.” Kazan’s new play, After the Blast, which opened this week at Lincoln Center Theater’s invaluable playwright’s greenhouse, the Claire Tow Theater, is darker and more complex. Yet it, too, teeters disturbingly on the loomingly intrusive interplay between artificial intelligence and basic human instincts and emotions.
It’s set in the not-too-distant future, when the left jab of nuclear war and the right hook of ecological disaster have driven what’s left of mankind into underground bunkers that bear a startling resemblance to Sellery Hall, the neo-Brutalist dormitory in Madison, Wisconsin I called home in 1971. Life is good, so long as you remember to activate the multitasking chip in your brain that turns the Soylent Green-style food replacement into whatever fantasy feast you desire and takes your mind on vacation to mountains or seaside whenever you wish.
Human propagation is tightly controlled and permission to reproduce must be approved. That’s the roadblock faced by Oliver (William Jackson Harper, of The Good Place), a scientist working to make the surface safe for mass transit once again, and his wife Anna (Cristin Milioti, of Once and Lazarus), who suffers the ever-darkening depression of one who abjures brain chips and fantasy guacamole. Until Anna snaps out of it, there will be no baby for them.
And so, in a variation of bringing home a kitten, Oliver shows up (well, down) with an exceptionally cute robot who looks like an Oxycodone capsule, except with black-pool eyes and penguin-like flippers for arms. Anna’s task, Oliver explains, is to train the robot so it can be given to some needy person with more severe challenges than her own. Anna names the robot Arthur and soon they’re as tight as Tom Hanks and Wilson.
I’m not giving too much away when I tell you that Arthur is just what the doctor called for, and soon Anna and Oliver are given the OK to get pregnant. You may have guessed by now that Kazan has something bigger in mind and not futuristic at all, but instead the oldest themes in the dramatist’s quiver: How deep, and how negotiable, are the powers of love and trust, especially when one’s very existence is at stake? How many arrows does it take for a wound to be fatal?
Under the keenly sensitive direction of Lila Neugebauer, After the Blast has been given a dream showcase, starting with the cast, which includes David Pegram and Eboni Booth as Oliver and Anna’s best friends; Ben Horner and Teresa Yenque. That purposefully sterile mise-en-scene is the work of Daniel Zimmerman (sets), Lucy MacKinnon (projections) and Eric Southern (lighting); the costumes are by Kaye Voyce, and Arthur is the handiwork of Noah Mease, and Will Connolly, who voices him. It.
Remember “tragedy then is an imitation of an action…”? If ever a play accurately summed up Aristotle’s definition of drama, it’s Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match, which opened Tuesday at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s off-Broadway venue, the Laura Pels Theatre. It’s about a showdown at the U.S. Open between the six-time reigning champ – an attractive blonde American named Tim – on the verge of aging out and the unpolished Russian up-and-comer Sergei, who’s determined to unseat him.
The 90-minute one-act is set (spiffily by Tim Mackabee) on center court, complete with tennis scoreboards at either side and day-for-night lights (by Bradley King) overhead. There’s no net. Tim (Wilson Bethel, appealing as a 34-year-old facing his mortality, give me a break) and Sergei (Alex Mickiewicz, also appealing as a stereotype Russian in need of some personality sanding) face one another as they do that athlete’s push-me pull-you tarantella of intimacy and aggression.
Sometimes they face us in half-squat, rackets at the ready, their sneakered feet soft-shoeing like crabs on speed. Sometimes one of them fades away (director Gaye Taylor Upchurch doesn’t always know what to do with them) as the other interacts with his significant other.
Tim’s wife Mallory (Zoë Winters) is a former player who gave up her own dreams to manage her husband and has suffered through a horrendous series of miscarriages. Sergei’s fiancée Galina (Natalia Payne) is a tough cookie pushing, pushing, pushing in the knowledge that only a championship will spring them from the tribulations of life in the Motherland.
So The Last Match aspires to something bigger, more meaningful, than a tennis match. Ziegler writes great repartee, which is nothing to sniff at. But her play is formless and whatever point it hopes to score is lost in a squishy ending. It doesn’t work, either as metaphor or tragedy – not even as imitation.