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Samuel & Alasdair

New Ohio Theatre

By Tommy O'Malley
Photo: Ian Saville

The New Ohio Theatre has a hit on its hands with Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War, a radio play-within-a-play set in post-apocalyptic Russia. The radio show is styled closely after “A Prairie Home Companion,” featuring an idiosyncratic host (Joe Curnutte), a lovelorn doctor (Marc Bovino), a singer (Stephanie Wright Thompson) and a near-mute guitarist (Michael Dalto). The terrific cast created the story with director Lila Neugebauer, whose sense of pacing allows the actors to hit comedic and suspenseful notes when needed.

Except for Dalto’s guitarist, all of the actors play two roles — one in communist Russia, where robots threaten to invade at any minute, and one in the radio play, which explains the origins of the robot war in 1950s Iowa. Reading the radio script, Curnette and Bovino play, respectively, Iowan brothers Alasdair and Samuel. Alasdair is a handsome athlete, while Samuel is a nebbish plagued by visions of future destruction. Thompson plays Suzy, the hometown girl who comes between Alasdair and Samuel. The miracle of the show is that the characters are fully drawn, paralleled at points, in each of the dueling worlds. What’s more, they invite the audience to share their innocence and terror equally.

The design of Samuel & Alasdair matches the precision of the performances. Laura Jellinek’s makeshift studio set effects a feeling of isolation that underscores the tension in the script. It looks like it could be the last place left on earth. Coupled with Stowe Nelson’s imperious sound design—think white noise, advancing footsteps and ringing silences—the world of Samuel & Alasdair is one we should hope never to inhabit. It is frightening.

Despite its morbid premise, the show delivers its share of joy. The quiet beauty of Thompson singing Sam Cooke or Patsy Cline is almost enough to make you forget that the end of the world is circling the theater — almost. She, Curnutte and Bovino do an excellent job of shedding and adopting accents and personae with rapid, jaw-dropping accuracy. These are three of the most enjoyable performances you will see in New York at the moment, performed in a show that is more satisfying than any of the celebrity circuses playing in midtown.

Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War; The New Ohio Theatre Company and The Mad Ones; Written by Marc Bovino and Joe Curnutte; Directed by Lila Neugebauer; The New Ohio Theatre; 154 Christopher Street; 212-868-4444;