If you want to make an argument for bringing science fiction to live theater, look no further than Mac Rogers’ Advance Man, both a compelling family drama and a bleak vision of Earth’s future.
Advance Man is the first play in Rogers’ Honeycomb Trilogy, a veritable sci-fi epic running as part of the BFG Collective’s six-month residency at the Secret Theatre. (The BFG Collective is made up of three theater companies, including Rogers’ company Gideon Productions.) The play centers on the family of Bill Cooke, world-renowned astronaut who led the first successful manned mission to Mars. It’s been three years since Bill and his crew returned, with one member dead and the other, Conor, mentally handicapped from an unexplained accident.
What appears at first to be a story about Bill caught between the intimate, closely guarded secrecy of his crew and his curious, flawed family becomes a slow-building thriller concerning the illicit cargo that the astronauts brought back with them from Mars.
Their “green initiative” is anything but beneficial to the planet and reflects a startling fanaticism brought on by their shared experience in space. Rogers skillfully grounds his high-concept plot by confining all of the action to the Cookes’ living room, perhaps the most mundane setting for the hatching of a planetwide conspiracy. However, the presence of Conor (Jason Howard, playing brain-damaged with fantastic sensitivity and intensity) pushes into every scene like the elephant in the room; he stands in his favorite corner, seemingly oblivious to the familial and political dramas unfolding around him.
I’ve been a fan of Rogers’ work since I saw his stunning play Viral in 2009. Rogers has a knack for highlighting the kind of modern stories that you don’t often see in theater, but that are just as universal as the themes explored by classic playwrights. His plays explore assisted suicide, the uniting power of the internet, and now, the displacement and panic of returning to Earth after years spent in space.
What’s incredible to witness in theater is a character with such a powerful grasp of words. Bill Cooke (Sean Williams) can cajole and tease anyone in his life, from rich investors to his supportive family, to act exactly as he needs them to. His ability to say the right thing in every situation ensures that those around him will bring his plans to fruition or remain blissfully ignorant.
Across the board, all of the performances are incredible. Despite Bill’s jovial nature, it’s clear that his family is suffering from his physical and now emotional absence: Wife Amelia (Kristen Vaughan) suspects he’s having an affair, while daughter Ronnie (Becky Byers) has to defend her more delicate brother Abbie (David Rosenblatt) at school. Byers and Rosenblatt have incredible chemistry as brother and sister; one of the play’s best scenes is a teasing discussion about “finger-blasting.”
As Bill’s “work family,” the other astronauts almost seem to represent different sides of one person: There’s the bitter Raf (Abraham Makany), who used to consider Conor his best friend; hot-headed Belinda (Rebecca Comtois, who I would have liked to see more of after her wonderful turn in Viral); and voice of reason Valerie (Shaun Bennet Wilson).
Because Advance Man is, in some ways, at the “infant” stage of this trilogy, it makes sense that it would be about nurturing new life and seditious thought. That’s how Amelia and Bill are alike in a key way. Each encourages development and self-awareness: Amelia in nursing Conor back to health, and Bill engendering strength in Ronnie and smarts in Abbie. (Though if the synopses of Blast Radius and Sovereign are any indication, Bill will come to regret establishing this binary in his children.)
Rogers doesn’t really answer the dramatic question “why tonight?” in a traditonal way. What seems to be the pivotal scene, the astronauts’ dinner with investor Kip (Brian Silliman) to get funding for their green initiative, is only one cog in a master scheme. The question is more “why now?”, with “now” being this era of global warming, oil shortage, and other environmental crises.
In many ways, the play is about conditioning yourself for an unknown future. Amelia is bracing herself for the revelation that Bill’s late nights with his crew means he’s having an affair. Almost as consuming as Bill’s work is his need to indoctrinate his children. When he tells Ronnie about how she’s an adult “in the world we have now,” there’s something menacing about how you can’t tell if it’s a compliment or a warning.
Advance Man runs through January 29 at the Secret Theatre in Queens (44-02 23rd Street), Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. There will be an additional performance on Monday, January 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18, $15 for students.
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes, and one of the Playwrights-in-Residence at True False Theatre. You can find her on Twitter.