According to Kazan’s compelling After the Blast, progress for women is moving slower than we think.
In this post-apocalyptic play, directed with clarity and compassion by Lila Neugebauer for Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater, years have passed since an environmental disasterforced people to flee underground and establish a new civilization. However, women are still blaming themselves for circumstances beyond their control.
Anna (Cristin Milioti) and Oliver (William Jackson Harper) are married third-generation, post-disaster citizens who met at a “compatibility fair.” They long to be parents, but reproduction is strictly regulated by the government. Adults are forced to pass a series of tests in order to “get their fertility,” and Anna has repeatedly failed these tests owing to severe depression.
To sim or not to sim
It’s clear that Anna’s depression stems from being forced to live underground. She is trapped in a series of mundane routines from which she can only escape if she choses to vape or “sim”—partake in virtual reality that can transport people to the beach or transform their bland, pre-packaged food into a deliciously seasoned meal.
A former journalist who now stays at home, Anna has plenty of time to think about the world before the disaster. She longs to escape aboveground from her generically sterile “unit.” (David Zimmerman’s beige-and-white designs and Lucy Mackinnon’s electronic images of the outdoors invoke thoughts of IKEA.) Her musings include doubting her ability to be a mother and even questioning the ethics of bringing a baby into the world. During one impassioned outburst, Anna even says she would have been better off dying.
Bot to the rescue
Trapped by his love for Anna and his fear of her depression, Oliver attempts to help her move beyond her bleak isolation. That’s why he brings home a Helper, a brand new robot that’s in need of training. Intended to one day assist the elderly and disabled, the robot needs to learn movement and communication skills. Teaching it will give Anna something to do and someone to talk to during the day, while Oliver, a scientist, works to return the Earth to habitable conditions.
Resentful and wary, Anna resists the bot at first, bitterly telling Oliver, “I’ll pour all of my anxiety into this thing instead of bothering you, and then maybe you’ll have a sweet, docile wife again.” But she soon finds herself sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings with the adorable machine, which she names Arthur due to its resemblance to R2-D2.
Milioti brings Anna to delicately vivid life, and Arthur is voiced with gentleness and affection by Will Connolly. The pair share a warmhearted chemistry onstage, Anna’s maternal warmth and Arthur’s undivided attention establishing a sweet rapport. Anna’s lessons with Arthur evolve into actual conversations that become increasingly sophisticated as she uploads more and more books into his system. They even enter the philosophical realm. Arthur asks Anna if her purpose in life is to make supper. After her rebuttal, he innocently inquires, “Why were you made if you don’t have a purpose?”
Same old gender issues
It’s a question that bears repeating. As well as addressing global warming, Kazan’s play piercingly probes gender dynamics, which have remained stagnant, despite the years of work that have been devoted to changing them. For example, Anna constantly apologizes to Oliver for her depression, saying he’d already be a parent if it weren’t for her. He repeatedly attempts to help her “get better.”
“I don’t need you to fill up my time,” she says to Oliver when he explains why he brought the robot home. It’s only when Oliver takes her aboveground to show her the world’s recovery in progress that Anna expresses real happiness. She joyfully recalls the experience to her friend Carrie (Eboni Booth), and the tears in her voice when she utters the words “It was sunlight” are genuinely moving. The scene plays on a stereotypically familiar moment from romantic comedies: the two women are giggling together on a couch while sipping tea, but instead of talking about romantic partners, they are discussing the effects of an apocalypse.
Harper clearly conveys Oliver’s efforts to help his wife while respecting her independence, but Anna’s complexities give Milioti the most to work with. The character’s struggles with depression are neither clichéd nor overwrought. When Anna tells Arthur, “I have something called depression. So I think the purpose of life is just to keep trying not to kill yourself,” she utters the sentences matter-of-factly. There is no need for her to heighten its delivery with histrionics.
The words and Milioti’s physicality—limp posture, vacant expression—convey all the emotion necessary. Her depressiveness is qualified by rebelliousness: Anna does not seek the two sensory pleasures citizens are granted. She is suspicious of simming and declines to vape. And her response to a second-act plot twist, which involves broken trust, is devastating to witness.
A rare thrill
Kazan’s carefully constructed script is peppered with delightful moments of comedy and social commentary. Passing mentions of the self-described Singles Compound and Anna’s weariness with writing clickbait puff-pieces add moments of levity and criticism.
Seeing a complicated woman who is difficult to understand, both written and played with compassion, is a rare thrill. It’s not a surprise, given Kazan’s own history of both writing and performing, especially with her subversive film Ruby Sparks, which powerfully explored the consequences of a dream becoming a reality. In After the Blast, the reality stems from a nightmare.