Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War

Photo: Ian Saville

In the alternative universe invented by theater collective The Mad Ones, The Cold War was abruptly curtailed by an alien robot invasion that wiped out North America. The Soviet Union survived, although the specter of subsequent devastation has loomed ever since. Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War is set in the midst of this doomsday scenario, with the New Ohio Theatre’s basement space on Christopher Street providing an appropriately bunker-like setting (performances through January 21, and then February 9-18).

It sounds more than a little kooky, in a glowing green UFO kind of way, but Samuel & Alasdair more than holds its own in this theater-drenched month. The Mad Ones have crafted a behind-the-scenes drama that has all the charm of a live radio broadcast, with music, canned sound effects, perky advertising pitches, and call-in trivia contests, but shaded by the intensity of the post-apocalyptic state the characters inhabit.

The radio show, “The At Home Field Guide,” is broadcast each week by a devoted quartet from a makeshift sound studio: the masterful, if slightly unctuous Host (Joe Curnutte); Dr. Mischa, a socially awkward but brilliant scientist (Marc Bovino); and Anastasia, a jaded but dedicated singer (Stephanie Wright Thompson). These three make an odd triangle, with Alexei “Tumbleweed” Petrovya (Michael Dalto) providing a musical—but otherwise silent—fourth.

The title of Samuel & Alasdair refers to this week’s radio drama, a coming of age story of two bothers and the girl they love, set in a small, Iowa farming town shortly before the alien robot invasion. The radio episodes, sprinkled with folk songs, refract nostalgia for 1950s Americana through a completely original lens while reframing the action in the present.

Undercurrents of tension ripple between the players when they aren’t on the air, with unspoken feelings and tensions about the direness of the situation outside running high. In many cases, gestures, inflections, and small details read more strongly than the spoken dialogue. The combination of apparent paradoxes—futuristic nostalgia, unsentimental emotion—plus spot-on timing, add up to a smart, well-structured piece of theater.

I saw Samuel & Alasdair back in 2010 when it premiered at The Brick in Williamsburg; it won three New York Innovative Theatre Awards that year. The work has gotten tighter since then, and my only quibble is with the ending, which remains a bit hasty.

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