What if the Cold War had ended in the 1950s due to a robot invasion which demolished the entire North American continent? In Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War, a grim group of radio hosts residing in post-apocalyptic Russia run a weekly show rooted in retro Americana idealism, complete with live soda-shop ballads and pop-culture quizzes. And yes, the binary themes and concocted characters are just as zany as this all sounds.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
An innovative combination of doo-wop, political nihilism, and just a splash of sarsaparilla, Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War takes us back to a time when the football star always got the girl and Russia made up half of Europe. It’s 1959 and the Russians have barely survived a worldwide attack from extra-terrestrial robots – the damage is so palpable that their radio signal often cuts out or the power shuts down during the play. Clearly, their country is still recovering. To boost morale, the Victory Studio, sponsored by Soviet Free Radio, hosts a weekly radio show featuring three personalities and a live band. On this particular night, we learn about Samuel and Alasdair, two brothers growing up in middle America (affectionately coined by the Russians as the “Corn Belt”) during the 1950s, and their love for the girl next door, Susie Q.
It’s a story of USSR versus USA in both ideals and ethics, but also an endearing sense of camaraderie and brotherhood, and the shattering effects of world war. The actors march into work weary and sullen, but brighten up along with the blinking red lights on the switchboard, ready to greet their listeners. They've got thick accents, but authoritative ones: they call out a slew of advertising copy with the speed and enthusiasm of an auctioneer on amphetamines. Joe Curnutte, the host of the show (and the play’s co-writer), handles introductions and segues with slick cunning; he is comfortable in any capacity and switches gears at lightning speed, whether reading lines for both brothers in a scene or jumping in on a duet during interludes. Indeed, all of the actors switch between stretching their vowels in chatty Midwestern accents as characters in a story and the rigid, halted Russian dialect they assume when announcing breaks in the program or talking amongst themselves offline.
The host has two supporting personalities: Anastasia Volinski (Stephanie Wright Thompson) and Mischa Romanav (the play’s other co-writer, Marc Bovino). The show’s resident know-it-all, Romanav is a renowned scientist and writer whose fame has dwindled along with his confidence. Clad in professorial glasses and a black turtleneck, Romanav is a shy, soft-spoken man who often needs encouragement before speaking directly into the microphone to answer questions asked of him. On breaks he acts just as timid, keeping to himself and taking slow sips of coffee. His counterpart, Volinksi, commands her listeners with bold, direct dialogue that leaves no question of stage fright.
Volinksi marches onstage in the first scene wearing a practical skirt, matching jacket, and perfectly pinned-up hair, all of which gives her an edgy Eastern European demeanor. She coyly betrays all when channeling classic American ballads such as Sam Cooke’s You Send Me or Patsy Cline’s She’s Got You. As Volinski, Thompson has a girlish vulnerability, and in the end, her fascinating yet subdued allure wins audiences over. In a sobering monologue later in the play, for example, she reveals how she didn’t seek out becoming a singer so much as fell into it, balancing out the brassy, upbeat points of the play with a real sense of tragic romance.
Director Lila Neugebauer continues to play up this theme with subtle staging. When Thompson first walks onstage in her pulled-together outerwear she immediately changes out of heels and into slippers, an action that forces her for the rest of the play to stand on a telephone book in order to reach the microphone. Her dreamy vocals are accompanied by Alexi “Tumbleweed” Petrovya (Michael Dalto) whose sometimes bluesy, sometimes twangy guitar stylings and a cappella percussion really makes one wonder which country this radio show broadcasts from.
Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War takes a notoriously pleasant point in history and gives it a startling alternative ending. Writers Marc Bovino and Joe Curnutte incorporate peppy 1950s colloquialisms in their witty script-within-a-script format to truly transport the audience to another time, but not quite a simpler nor familiar one. Their take on Russian survivors post Cold War is also refreshingly fleshed out and empathetic: these are not boilerplate Commies etched out of old Bullwinkle cartoons. These characters are truly enamored with American pop culture such as rock ‘n’ roll and I Love Lucy, who are just as terrified by the unrecognizable interwoven radio dispatches of air bomb sirens and panicked dialogue they hear cutting into their otherwise regularly scheduled programming. 1950s American idealism has never been so surreal.
Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War (80 minutes; no intermission)
The Brick Theater (575 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg)
Tickets (www.theatermania.com or 212.352.3101): $15
Performances: Saturday 6/27 @ 2pm, Sunday 6/27 @ 7pm, and Thursday 7/2 @ 7:30pm