Absurdism is a tricky genre: tricky to write and tricky to perform. That's what makes Edward Einhorn's absurdist science fiction drama Alma Baya so impressive: it's nearly perfect.
Two women named Alma and Baya live inside a pod on an air-less planet. Operating the pod by means of their multi-volume instruction manual, they know virtually nothing about how the pod actually functions or what they're supposed to be doing there other than surviving. Of course, as the play progresses, we get more clues. But then a stranger from another pod shows up, claiming to be the sole survivor after her pod lost oxygen. Alma and Baya have never met anyone from the other pods, and the arrival of this bold stranger throws their daily routine into commotion.
Behind the scenes, we guess that someone is conducting an experiment, and in fact, we're later told that humanity's survival largely depends on Alma's and Baya's success or failure. The two women are simply rats in someone's cosmic laboratory, and the unseen, unheard from overseer looms over the whole play. But it's harder to guess just how many strings this mysterious puppet-master is pulling. If Samuel Beckett had ever written an episode for the Twilight Zone, it might look something like this.
Produced by Untitled Theatre Company #61 at A.R.T./New York Theatres, Alma Baya is double cast as a COVID precaution. The cast I saw (Cast B) was phenomenal. Maggie Cino (Alma) and JaneAnne Halter (Baya) treat the play's comic moments with ease and spontaneity, playing their characters as profoundly innocent yet a step away from the fall. In fact, Alma Baya could be read as a sort of Adam and Eve story: two naïve forerunners of humanity encounter an outsider who threatens to disrupt their world and irrevocably destroy their innocence.
This makes the Stranger, played brilliantly by Nina Mann, the tempting serpent. And she fits the bill. Enigmatic up to the end, Mann's Stranger is a wild card in the play: bold, questioning, almost seductive without trying to be (she first appears in the nude).
Alma Baya also teases the idea of the Other and humanity's dangerous fear of outsiders. Like Waiting for Godot, the play opens itself up to a myriad of theories and interpretations.
But it's also just good theatre. While the possibility of answers to the play's many unknowns makes it engrossing, the sharp, often funny dialogue makes it a joy to watch. And there are enough twists and turns to keep things exciting. In other words, it's a masterpiece. I found it startlingly fresh and powerful, wish there were more plays like it being produced today, and can't stop thinking about it.
With Broadway's reopening still about a month away (aside from Pass Over, which coincidentally has the same basic premise as Alma Baya), now is the perfect time to support bold new work by smaller theatre companies. If you're on a quest for refreshingly original theatre flawlessly performed, Alma Baya is your destination.
Written and directed by Edward Einhorn, Alma Baya runs August 13-28 at A.R.T./New York’s Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre 502 W. 53rd Street (at 10th Ave). The production is available in-person, streaming, and on demand. For more information and to purchase tickets, see the link below.