'After the Blast': Theater Review

Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel
William Jackson Harper and Cristin Milioti in 'After the Blast'
Touching and funny, but way too long.

Cristin Milioti plays a woman who bonds emotionally with a robot in this futuristic drama by actress-playwright Zoe Kazan, recently seen in 'The Big Sick.'

There's a terrific 90-minute play struggling to break free at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater. It depicts a young woman's growing attachment to a robot in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust that has driven mankind underground. This imaginative work proves both touching and amusing.

Unfortunately, Zoe Kazan's After the Blast actually runs two-and-a-half hours. Sluggishly paced and needlessly attenuated, the drama squanders its provocative ideas through self-indulgence. It's a shame, because Kazan, the actress who gave a breakout performance in this summer's romantic screen comedy The Big Sick, is a promising playwright. She's already written several plays, as well as the screenplay for Ruby Sparks, and this effort displays her working in an imaginative new direction.

The central characters are Oliver (William Jackson Harper), a scientist, and his wife Anna (Cristin Milioti, of Broadway's Once and the sitcom How I Met Your Mother), who suffers from depression. Living in a cramped apartment and dreaming of one day being allowed to return "aboveground" after a nuclear Armageddon has caused an environmental disaster, the couple desperately want to have a child. Unfortunately, fertility is strictly regulated and Anna has flunked the required tests because of her suicidal tendencies.

In an effort to give Anna something on which to focus, Oliver brings home a small robot, informing her that he's signed them up for a program in which she's to train it to eventually be of service to blind children. Initially resistant, Anna soon finds herself warming up to the robot she names "Arthur," because of its marked resemblance to R2-D2.

After beginning with simple word recognition and speech development, she and Arthur are soon best buddies, even singing and dancing together to "Islands in the Stream." They also engage in philosophical discussions, such as when a puzzled Arthur asks, "Why were you made if you don't have a purpose?" Anna develops a strong emotional bond with Arthur, but he can't reciprocate because, as he calmly explains, he doesn't have feelings.

The play movingly depicts Anna regaining her emotional equilibrium as a result of her feelings for her artificial pal. There are also plentiful laughs, with Arthur proving an endearing creation who shakes hands by lifting one of his flippers. Speaking in a soothing metallic voice and gliding around the apartment chasing a ball, he's so adorable that the theater would be wise to sell replicas in the lobby after the show.

After the Blast delivers an imaginative, understated portrait of a futuristic society in which beleaguered inhabitants resort to using "sim," a form of virtual reality, to experience the pleasures of nature of which they're now deprived, and vaping to get high. Oliver and Anna's apartment features a large video screen showcasing beautiful images of a natural world that has been transformed into a wintry, radiation-contaminated wasteland. And there's a revelatory plot twist in the second act that one doesn't see coming.

But the writing also feels flabby and unfocused. The play features supporting characters who barely make an impression, scenes that lose impact by going on far too long and digressionary subplots that seem unnecessary. Director Lila Neugebauer's listless staging doesn't help, making the evening feel even longer than it actually is.

She has, however, elicited superb performances from the lead actors, with Harper quietly persuasive as the husband desperately trying to keep his marriage intact and Milioti superbly conveying her character's growing attachment to Arthur. The scenes depicting Anna bonding with her solicitous AI companion are so touching and funny, you can almost overlook the play's flaws.

Venue: Claire Tow Theater, New York
Cast: Eboni Booth, Will Connolly, William Jackson Harper, Ben Horner, Cristin Milioti, David Pegram, Teresa Yenque
Playwright: Zoe Kazan
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Set designer: Daniel Zimmerman
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Eric Southern
Sound designer: Brandon Wolcott
Projection designer: Lucy Mackinnon
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater