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Director Lila Neugebauer stages After the Blast at Lincoln Center
It's been a banner year for Lila Neugebauer and it's not even over yet. The rising director staged world-premiere plays by Obie winner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Everybody at Signature Theatre) and Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker (The Antipodes at Playwrights Horizons), and two shows she helmed in 2016 -- The Wolves and Miles for Mary -- are about to transfer to Lincoln Center and Playwrights Horizons respectively.
But After the Blast, which just opened at Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theater, is special in that it reunites Neugebauer with an old friend from Yale University, Zoe Kazan. Though best known as a stage and screen actress (she starred in the dark rom-com The Big Sick), Kazan is also a budding dramatist: After the Blast is her second play after We Live Here. Kazan shared a sweet tweet on opening night about her longtime friendship with Neugebauer and the FringeNYC show mounted by a bunch of Yalies that brought them together in 2004. The admiration is clearly mutual. "Zoe is a playwright who has tremendous insight with regard to human psychology and also how we operate emotionally," Neugebauer says. "She also has a tremendously robust intellectual curiosity. After the Blast really spoke to me intellectually in terms of the world Zoe's constructed."
A sci-fi drama set after an environmental disaster has forced humans to retreat underground, After the Blast may take place in the future but its themes speak to today's concerns. Loneliness, depression, government control, and reproductive rights are explored as Anna (Tony nominee Cristin Milioti) and her husband Oliver (William Jackson Harper) apply for the right to get pregnant, but are turned down due to her mental state. "The stakes of the mental health story are very high for me," says Neugebauer, who acknowledges she has struggled with bouts of depression herself. "It really was important to me to represent that in a way that felt true and complex. I felt the intelligence and credibility of the writing supporting us in portraying it with as much conviction as we could. Cristin has inhabited the kind of multifaceted, vibrating complexity of battling certain mental health obstacles with tremendous integrity, tenacity, and authenticity."
Another major directing challenge was the fact that Anna becomes enamored of Arthur, who's not human -- he's an adorable yellow robot designed by Noah Mease and voiced by Will Connolly. "The pleasure of getting to work with the robot has been a lot like working with puppets," Neugebauer says. "Just trying to endow and imbue an inanimate object with a sense of spirit and life."
Although Neugebauer is well aware of theatre's ongoing gender parity problem and has worked with many female playwrights, she says she isn't "intrinsically more interested in writing by women than by men." However, "I'm a woman living in a patriarchy, so I think about gender all the time," she admits. "And I am drawn to writers who have a consciousness and a political awareness of the forces surrounding our experience of our gender in contemporary culture."
After the Blast certainly checks that box. "I think that the kind of politicization of women's bodies is alive in this play in a kind of layered, complex, slippery way," Neugebauer says. "Also the characters are so well-drawn. Am I interested in complex, female characters on stage? I am. I'm interested in complex characters period."
Top image: Cristin Milioti and William Jackson Harper in After the Blast. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.