Theater Review: In After the Blast, the Apocalypse Is Now

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Underground in After the Blast, at Lincoln Center. Photo: Jeremy Daniel/After The Blast

Back in August, I compared Second Stage’s production of Bruce Norris’s A Parallelogram to Black Mirror. As I left the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center in the wake of Zoe Kazan’s sharp, stirring After the Blast — under the expert and unaffected direction of Lila Neugebauer — I remarked to a friend that I regretted using up my reference to the eerie Netflix series. But the truth is, we’re probably due for a spate of such stories in every medium: They are the new science fiction, the refracting lens for the preoccupations of our moment. And if they’re all as incisive and humane as After the Blast, then at least we’ll have one hell of a mirror to hold up to our catastrophically damaged nature.

In Kazan’s play, nature is a distant memory. Mountains, rivers, sunsets, little silvery fish — these things are only available as collections of pixels on a screen, or as “Sims”: virtual sensory experiences simulated in the brain by means of an implanted chip. Want to spend a day at the beach with your family? Sim it. Want the white, pasty nutrient substance you’re eating to taste like steak? There’s a Sim for that. Want to understand a foreign language? Just use a Sim.

Without “Simming,” the inhabitants of “the ninth division of the American West” would lead lives not unlike those of moles. In After the Blast, what’s left of Earth’s population has retreated deep underground in the wake of a total environmental breakdown. They are roughly the third generation in this new subterranean America, where life is a series of sterile, technologically enhanced rooms (the effectively claustrophobic Ikea-capsule of a set is by Daniel Zimmerman) and work is the immense, unvarying task of sustaining humanity long enough to reach “Rehabitation.” Some work in Cultural Collection, preserving “ephemera,” making sure people remember what Labradors looked like and how books smelled. But if you’re scientifically inclined, you might work in Environmental Solutions — and people will look to you in awe and expectation because you might know the secret to that deepest of questions: When can we go back?

So it is for Oliver (the excellent William Jackson Harper), an outwardly positive, practical scientist hard at work on fixing the planet his ancestors destroyed. It’s a sensitive job, and Oliver can’t bring his work home, to the frustration of his wife Anna, a former journalist whose “more verbal and artistic” intelligence has isolated her in a world where such skills now seem frivolous. Anna and Oliver want a baby — at least, they think they do — but Anna has repeatedly failed the Mental Health Examination couples must take before they “receive fertility.” They have one more chance to pass the test, but the odds don’t look good. Anna isn’t just coping with a pesky Vitamin D deficiency, as Oliver passes it off to a friendly stranger: She is in the grips of deep, real depression. What’s more, she doesn’t Sim — a decision that her friends (and Oliver, though he doesn’t initially admit it) find utterly bewildering. Who wouldn’t escape a reality like this, even if only into a virtual dream realm, given half a chance? Wouldn’t it make her happier? More able to cope? But Anna is adamant: “I just don’t have any particular interest in being used as a server,” she says. Her visceral aversion hit me hard as I recognized in it my own relationship with present-day social media: It’s an escape and a tool; it seems to help some people a great deal, and yet to me it feels like a black hole — an overwhelming affirmation of the very abyss from which it’s ostensibly providing a distraction.

After the Blast has the smart, fully fleshed-out trappings of a compelling dystopia story, but its heart — and its strength — is its examination of despair, the daily, deadening tug toward the dark that, for so many of us, has become a feature of walking through this world. The story belongs to Anna — a superb performance by Cristin Milioti, who is devastating without ever overplaying a note — and to the relationship she forms with the overwhelmingly adorable “Helper” robot that Oliver brings home one day. (Based on a visual concept by Noah Mease, given a voice at once affectless and weirdly poignant by Will Connolly, and remote-manipulated live by some truly intrepid stagehands, this little creature is a puppetry marvel.)

Anna must be bored, Oliver insists. A project would make her happier. If she were happier, she might pass her next Mental Health Examination, and they might finally get their baby. The Helper bot can be her project: She can help “train” it — acclimatize it to language, interaction, basic tasks — before it’s passed on to its eventual owner (we learn from a chipper, eerie instructional video that “every year underground, more and more children are born without sight,” and the Helpers have been designed as a kind of intelligent robotic equivalent of guide dogs). Though Anna is originally skeptical at the idea of being “foisted off on a hunk of metal,” she slowly starts to take an interest in the little bot. She names it Arthur. She starts to teach it to speak. And so begins a series of beautiful duets between this smart, suffering woman and the little emotionless robot.

Milioti’s interactions with her automated (though actor-voiced) scene partner feel like tiny miracles. The audience leans forward in unison — the air in the space starts to feel almost sacred. We are witnessing the opening up of a heart, the slow, quiet progress out of the darkness by a human soul. Anna, it turns out, is a natural-born teacher. Helping Arthur to learn the world reawakens her own desire to live in it, despite how monumentally humanity has fucked it up. Kazan’s touch in these scenes is pointed and witty (when Anna identifies herself as a woman and Arthur asks mechanically “Is that your … Job?” the audience’s laughter holds a powerful oof of recognition). It’s also breathtakingly humane. When Arthur — the hunk of metal who repeatedly reminds us “I don’t have feelings” — delivers a dispassionate treatise on the logical irrationality of despair, I could feel my heart tightening in my chest. Seldom have I seen a more moving, more graceful theatrical argument for making that simplest, hardest of choices: the choice to go on, to stick around.

Of course, Anna’s halycon days with Arthur can’t last. The inevitable truth of why Oliver actually brought the little robot into their home will out, turning the final movement of After the Blast into a heartbreaking meditation on emotional betrayal and the long, perhaps impassable road toward forgiveness. Under Neugebauer’s meticulous, confident hand, Harper and Milioti give mesmerizing performances: painfully raw without a trace of melodrama. When Anna demands the truth of Oliver — “What’s it like on the surface?” — she’s forcing him to confront the first of so many well-intentioned lies. And when he answers her honestly, it’s as if he’s meeting her eyes for the first time. “Everything is frozen,” he admits. “Ice everywhere … Years and years down the line, a very long time from now, the people who have survived will have to build everything from absolutely nothing. It will be very, very hard. Almost impossible. Those people who dare to go back aboveground will have to be incredibly brave — maybe foolish.”

Harper speaks slowly, deliberately, through great pain, and as he stands across the stage from Milioti, his description of the planet’s wreckage becomes an astonishing parallel for a broken human relationship. How do we repair what we have destroyed? Is such an attempt courageous or meaningless? After the Blast’s brilliance lies in its use of science fiction’s black mirror to cast light on human betrayals both global and personal. Its shattered world is ours — as is Anna’s despair. But like her little robot, Kazan seems to say: The future is unknowable, the road long and hard. And all we can do in the face of the things we have ruined, is to shoulder our responsibility, pick up what pieces we can, and keep moving.

After the Blast is at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center through November 19.

Theater Review: In After the Blast, the Apocalypse Is Now