How They Attack Us Is a Familiar Look at American Paranoia
This modest world premiere by Kevin McKeon lives at the center of a Venn diagram between sci-fi thriller, kitchen-sink family drama, and an essay stuffed into the mouths of its characters on the familiar topic of how sci-fi movies reflect American cultural anxieties.
How They Attack Us: A Play in Real Time tips us off to its game in the first minutes: A panicked, panting young woman with a gun and a black ski mask breaks into an apartment where a TV is blaring the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She inspects the tiny apartment for signs of life and, not finding any, idles for a few seconds to check her cell phone reception. The apartment's unwitting resident, her estranged stepfather Roy, comes home with a pizza. She springs into action, holding him at gunpoint and interrogating him, making sure he still has his memory—"Where'd you meet my mom?" "Rehab"—before pouring out her own anguished body-snatchers tale.
In the past few days, she says, people she knows have been developing strange rashes, vomiting fountains of green liquid, forgetting who they are, and disappearing. Roy is skeptical at first, but eventually he gets in on the emotional action. Is something major happening? Are they just being paranoid? They don't have enough evidence. They don't know how to feel.
The rest of How They Attack Us is an emotional weeble-wobble familiar to sci-fi aficionados, vacillating between the fear of disruption (mysterious vans, horrible viruses, friends vanishing) and a perverse yearning for disruption, for some cataclysm to interrupt the inertia of their workaday lives. The young woman, Lacey (a jittery Meg McLynn), is a sometime meth addict, holding down the recovery life, with strained ties to her family. The deadpan stepfather, Roy (playwright McKeon, thin and balding with a gray ponytail), is another recovering addict who lives in a shabby apartment and doesn't seem attached to anyone or anything in particular.
In one exchange, after Roy simmers down from his own conspiracy-theory froth, he asks Lacey to look out the window at "the bigger picture." She sees traffic, a mother and daughter, a man walking a dog. "Is the nail parlor open?" Roy asks. "Yeah," Lacey replies, deflated by the boringness. "You almost sound disappointed," Roy says. Though they've been estranged for years, the terrible thrill of this supposed virus-crisis was sparking them, bringing them together. If nothing's happening, they're just left to themselves again.
Eventually, Roy's affable friend Blaine (played by Robert Kriley, who has the fleshy face, tired eyes, and thick black hair of Oliver Platt) shows up to hold forth on the American appetite for disaster/sci-fi/zombie stories. "Losing ones we love," he says in the middle of his lecture. "Scariest thing of all. Invaders from Mars, Cronenberg's The Fly. Poor Jeff Goldblum, right? Horror's a big crossover genre here: Carrie, any of the haunted house or werewolf movies... Any of the films that involve physical change or transformation."
The performances are adequate, as is the balance between fear and humor, but How They Attack Us contains no real surprises. As the characters talk about themselves and the people they know, they tick off the scary body-snatchers of our current world: meth addiction, Scientology, half-baked Tea Party populism, internet anonymity turning normal people into paranoid rage machines. How They Attack Us begins with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and, in the end, shows us not much has changed.