On paper, Jon Elston’s new comedy “After America: Wasteland 2015,” which opened Friday in Road Less Traveled Theatre, has the makings of a hit:
Four survivors of the apocalypse from different walks of life converge, “Breakfast Club”-style, on a desolate military outpost in Evangola State Park. There, under the supervision of a bumbling commander, they train for an impossible mission to disarm a nuclear weapon that threatens to kill the remaining 919 people in America. Toss in a few zombies and cannibals, a little class resentment, a thinly veiled caricature of the Koch Brothers and Bert Gambini’s disembodied voice warning of imminent nuclear disaster to the strains of Neil Young, and you ought to have one of the standout comedies of the season.
And yet, when all those wacky ideas creak to life on the Road Less Traveled stage, the effect is underwhelming. The play that might have been a searing indictment of American inequality in the guise of a post-apocalyptic B-movie sendup becomes a jumble of one-liners and characters too slippery to attach yourself to in any meaningful way.
The production, co-directed by Scott Behrend and Katie Mallinson, also suffered from pacing issues on opening night.
The show is a sequel of sorts to Elston’s “2012: End of the Road,” which explored the earlier days of the apocalypse. In “After America,” the characters have come to accept the grim fate of the world and have set their minds on a new task: if and how to reconstitute an American society at least marginally better than the last one.
That’s where our motley crew of survivors comes in, each one an overgrown “Sesame Street” character with psychological issues. There’s Andy Basin (Steve Brachmann, in fine comic form), the wayward blogger with a useless degree in screenwriting; Tommi Owens (Lisa Vitrano), a sassy waitress with plenty of street smarts; Macie Janowski (Danica Riddick), a Cornell grad with no practical skills whatsoever; and Justin Foch (Peter Palmisano), a ruthless capitalist who has more sympathy for the self-sufficient cannibals that rove the great American wasteland than any of his comrades at Camp Evangola.
Elston’s setup is clever and non-chronological. He begins by showing us the dramatic moments leading up to the play’s conclusion and then hits rewind, introducing us to his core characters. Each of them has fought his or her way through the scorched landscape to find Camp Evangola, the last stronghold of the American government. There, under the supervision of an Orwellian commander played stiltingly by Monish Bhattacharyya, they learn they are humanity’s last hope.
Each character is a mouthpiece for a particular worldview, but none are as compelling or fully realized as Palmisano’s detestable Foch, the indifferent paragon of American individualism to whom Elston has given all the best lines. Next to him, the neurotic blogger, the blithe waitress and the anxious Cornell grad can’t quite compete. That might be a great metaphor for the seductive power of conservative rhetoric but it doesn’t make for a compelling balance of dramatic voices.
There are plenty of delightful small moments, including a campy performance from Kelsey Mogensen as a clueless teacher and bloodthirsty cannibal, but they’re too disconnected to add up to much in the end.
Theatergoers with a high tolerance for indiscriminate camp and C-movie expectations may find enough here to like. But the rest of you may be rooting for the bomb to go off.
What: “After America: Wasteland 2015”
Where: Road Less Traveled Theatre, 639 Main St.
When: Through April 4
Tickets: $15 to $33; $5 for students on Thursday nights.
Info: 629-3069 or roadlesstraveledproductions.org