Before the audience enters the theater, they’re encouraged to write down answers to a question that will be used later in the show.
The three-sided playing area is set with a configuration of tables resembling the round “War Room” from the movie, there’s a red telephone on view and a briefcase with a vintage yellow and black Civilian Defense logo. Above are three panels where mostly black and white images are projected that recall parts of the film.
Dressed in a gray suit and wearing glasses, performer Peggy Shaw is at a control console in the auditorium. Onstage is performer Lois Weaver in a black suit, sunglasses, and a two-tone wig slumped on the table. Ms. Shaw plays an amalgam of the insane generals and Ms. Weaver is “Madame President” though she resembles Dr. Strangelove.
The plot is established when Shaw converses with an audience plant playing a secretary in a simulated phone conversation as it is revealed that as in the film, a nuclear missile is on its way in 59 minutes. The audience is invited to set their phone timers accordingly.
There’s a lot of self-references to “the show” and there are leisurely tangents. Things are energized when after a series of selective questions Shaw has the 12 oldest audience members sitting onstage in “The Situation Room” wearing headsets. Some personal information is disclosed, philosophical questions are answered and the tone becomes serious. This sequence is the core of the production and is sedately compelling.
Shaw employs the gruff cadences of George C. Scott and Weaver has the calm and measured tone of Peter Sellers and both are thoroughly delightful. Their tremendous rapport is most evident in the phone scene from the film between the U.S. president and the Soviet leader: “How do you think I feel?”
The title refers to old explosives devices that have been recovered from being buried in the ground that may or may not be operational. There’s a serene riff about that.
Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) is written by Weaver, Shaw and Hannah Maxwell. Weaver and Shaw are founding members of Split Britches, the acclaimed alternative theater group that was formed in 1980. They’re responsible for this piece that is presented as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.
Weaver’s direction is steady and unobtrusive with occasional presentational flourishes. Choreography consultant Stormy Brandenberger provides some cool dance moves.
Country music, pop songs of the era, and appropriate effects are forcefully rendered by Vivian Stoll’s pleasing sound design. The hypnotic images on display are due to the video content design of Claire Nolan. Technical designer Jo Palmer and design consultant Matt Delbridge’s efforts contribute to the eerie look and texture of the production that simulates the sheen of the film.
Released in 1964, director Stanley Kubrick’s black and white Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb uproariously satirized the nuclear war tenet of Mutually Assured Destruction between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. It was a critical and commercial success and became a cultural classic with phrases and scenes that remain familiar to many. Even without knowledge of the movie, one could still enjoy the thoughtful comedy on display.
Using this as source material while uniquely embellishing it, Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) can be interpreted as a humorous, provocative and cryptic meditation on the meaning of human existence.
Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) (through January 21, 2018)
The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival
La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www. lamama.org
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission