Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
June 6, 2009
Imagine an alternate universe in which the alien invasion in War of the Worlds actually happened, and most of North America was destroyed; but instead of succumbing to a virus, imagine the robotic invaders kept fighting, and the rest of the world joined forces to fight back. Imagine the past 50 years have been a struggle of man vs. invaders, with man gradually losing.
Now, imagine that universe's version of A Prairie Home Companion.
Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War takes place in this alternate Russia, in the studio where three actors (Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, and Stephanie Wright Thompson) have gathered to present their weekly radio program—a kitschy old-time country-western variety show with skits, trivia quizzes, science factoids, and song breaks from a guitarist they call "Tumbleweed" (Michael Dalto). "Samuel and Alasdair" is also the play-within-a-play they're performing in this episode—a love triangle they've set in the erstwhile American Midwest just before the initial invasion. As our cast spins the yarn of two all American farm boys fighting for the love of the same girl—one of the brothers periodically warning the others of the oncoming invaders—the cast struggles with power outages and faulty equipment, and twice brings everything to a halt when an ancient telegraph in the corner beeps into life and issues warnings in Morse code.
The description sounds chaotic, but the premise is so unusual I was instantly hooked—and the performances so engaging I was easily able to follow along. The script, co-written by Curnutte and Bovino, strikes a perfect balance between telling the story of Samuel and Alasdair and the stories of the "actors" as well. We only get bits and pieces of the actors' stories, as they chat during power outages or when they're "offstage," but the script is so beautifully written that these vignettes serve as tantalizing glimpses into the characters rather than just filler. Some of their "on air" banter is poignant as well—"let me tell you how Anastasia looks tonight," says our host at one point, going on to describe his co-star (Thompson) in a magnificent ball gown—while the real Anastasia, wearing only a housedress, smiles gratefully and wistfully. Periodically, we are reminded of the alien threat—a listener calls in with a frantic message at one point—but mostly, it's showtime as usual.
My biggest complaint with the show was that I simply wanted to know more. Most of the time the script keeps things deliciously cryptic, but once or twice they hide too much—all the characters silently read over each of those Morse code messages they receive, and react to them, but the audience never learns what they say. The guitarist "Tumbleweed" is mute until a two-minute monologue at the very end of the play, but he speaks entirely in Russian, and his speech is never translated for the audience's benefit. After hearing the lovely stories the others told, I really wish I'd known what he said. But this is a testament to the strength of this funny and haunting piece.