I couldn’t have been much more pleased with my first sojourn to the New Ohio Theatre in its fresh space in the far West Village. Comfortable seats fill a theater that’s spacious and clean yet retains a bit of the downtown funkiness that made the old Ohio so unique. Samuel & Alasdair, by a new company called The Mad Ones, has an old-time radio-station setting and back-to-the-future weirdness that make it a perfect occupant.
Written by cast members Marc Bovino and Joe Curnutte from a conception by them and director Lila Neugebauer, Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War is a clever and funny alt-history/sci-fi tale in which an extraterrestrial invasion has half a century ago nuked North America to smithereens. Though the rest of the world managed to fight off the invasion, the surviving Soviet Union (it’s now the early 21st century) is such a shambles that its radio hosts are reduced to telling nostalgic tales of bygone days in Middle America.
Complete with classic country-and-western songs sung by the cast and accompanied on stage by the talented guitarist Michael Dalto (playing the mostly non-speaking but deliciously named Alexei “Tumbleweed” Petrovya), this American story of two brothers and the girl they both love forms just one layer of a slow-moving yet dense narrative in which we also get to know the radio performers themselves, an extremely funny trio.
The Host (Mr. Curnutte) shifts effortlessly among the personae of his natural Russian self, the older American brother, and a slick film-noir detective. Co-host Dr. Mischa Romanav (sic?), played by Mr. Bovino, jerks tears and laughter in equal measure. The two bounce brilliantly off the attractive but curdled Anastasia, played with pinpoint effectiveness by the excellent Stephanie Wright Thompson.
Beset by static, power outages, and flaky equipment, the radio show rattles on as the world outside seems to be falling apart, though the nature of the crisis isn’t entirely clear. A blackout occasions a revealing story from Anastasia (as herself). A call-in segment is subverted by the sad fact of no one calling in. (Is anyone listening?) An outgoing call taps into a telephonic shriek suggesting a Terminator-style dystopian nightmare outside.
The show wouldn’t be half as effective without Stowe Nelson’s harrowing sound design and Laura Jellinek’s knockabout set, but it is the pitch-perfect cast under Ms. Neugebauer’s imaginative yet economical direction that makes of this multilayered fable a thoroughly rewarding theatrical experience.
Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War runs through Jan. 25 at the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St. in NYC.
Photo by Ian Saville