A Trivial City

Atomic City, a sixty-minute avant-garde performance art piece presently running at the LaMama Annex, is clever and certainly well-intentioned, but has nothing new to say; nothing challenging to ask. According to its publicity, Atomic City is a "tragic comedy." It is unclear why, as it elicits neither laughter -- through tears or otherwise -- nor shock and awe. Lacking in original insight or complex characterisation, this piece, by Fuerzabruta performer Jon Morris and Danish troupe Terra Nova, is merely smug and patronizing. The Atomic City looks very much like the world of Dr. Seuss's anti-proliferation classic The Butter Battle Book. Two groups of neighbors-cum-adversaries are divided by a wall. In this case, the wall is made of paper. As in The Butter Battle Book, as tensions between the groups mount, the wall gets taller. Soon, the characters risk being immured by their own fears.

Morris and Terra Nova have set up the Annex auditorium as an alley theatre. The two stands of seats face each other across the stage space. As the wall gets taller, it blocks each half-audience from seeing not only the actors on the other side, but the other half of the audience. Thus do walls, and conflicts, divide us and obscure our common humanity.

On each side of the wall lives a nuclear family. The paterfamilias of each is a white-coated scientist, a stock type in anti-proliferation parables from Dr Strangelove on backwards. At one point, the two scientists struggle to occupy the same white lab coat. They also have another point of contention: the pleasant, pecan-pie-baking, robotic-voiced, puff-skirted and aproned wife of one scientist has defied the wall to have an affair with the other. Her son notices, and is mad. The Narrator, who stands outside the wall, and provides both sides with increasingly large water guns, also notices and is faintly bemused.

On the sidelines, performers create nuclear missiles from pre-printed kits with crayons and tape. Evidently, in trying to protect the integrity of their nuclear families, and their own positions of sexual and social control, the nuclear scientists are going to destroy their families and the Atomic City.

On Atomic City's television gameshow, a red, white, and blue-dressed host invites contestants to participate in the "Final Termination," and invites the LaMama audience to welcome the guests who are so eager to play. He introduces one "Lisa Patterson, from Iowa," who "loves the smell of burnt rubber and anything on a stick!" How quaint and amusing those Red State Americans are, with their polluting cars, taste for unhealthy, cheap non-cosmopolitan food, and murderous drives toward "Final Termination." Surely we would never see any such thing in our more civilized parts, for example, Westchester County.

The show's political insight leaves something to be desired. "We want more walls," the publicity declares, "and less drama." In some situations, walls are stupid. The Berlin Wall and Lamar Alexander's idiotic plan to wall illegal immigrants out of the American southwest definitely are. Other walls, however, are more complicated. The Plaquemines wall in New Orleans is essential to keep out not people, but water. The very controversial Israeli wall traps and divides Palestinians, but also is arguably the logical consequence of attacks on Israeli civilians. Atomic City's platitudes about walls don't begin to address the questions that the building of real walls raise.

According to the publicity card, the Atomic City's "monumental" conflicts escalate from "trivial issues," such as, I suppose, the housewife's affair. This is disingenuous, as the issues that led to the real problem walls and to the carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are anything but trivial. It's a pity that, in Atomic City as in the Atomic City, those vital questions are never really explored.

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