Stories speak volumes in the playwright Anne Washburn’s work. In “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” she submitted an episode of “The Simpsons” to 70 years of hand-me-down distortion. In a world with no power, its plot was passed on by mouth, storyteller to storyteller and, as society shifted, so did the storyline. It evolved to express the inchoate hopes, fears and needs of a nation and a culture.
Her stage adaptation of “The Twilight Zone,” now playing at London’s Almeida Theatre, pulls the same trick. It might look, initially, like a bit of a laugh – a loving send-up of the cult TV show’s retro charms. But what starts as an exercise in style slowly accumulates substance, and Washburn argues that the eerie and uncanny tales of “The Twilight Zone” tap into something deep-seated in the American psyche. A gentle pastiche becomes an act of cultural exegesis.
Of the 156 episodes of Rod Serling’s otherworldly anthology that were broadcast on network television between 1959 and 1964, Washburn adapts eight fairly faithfully. These are dinky vignettes about roadside diners rooting out aliens in their midst, children lost in their own bedroom walls and homecoming astronauts that may or may not exist.
Rather than stacking Serling’s stories back-to-back, Washburn splices them together, loosening the linearity of the logic and adding to the aura of woozy oddity. In practice, however, Richard Jones’ disjointed staging mostly bunny-hops between them, and few achieve the satisfaction of complete storytelling. Instead, it slips into a parade of strange figures and shady oddballs on Paul Steinberg’s starry-night set. There are big-brained aliens and mummified women, precocious ventriloquists and paranoid delusional pilots. An unblinking John Marquez best captures the slippery spirit, as he staves off sleep for fear of the feline figure (Lizzy Connelly) haunting his dreams.
There’s no denying the originality or the elegance of these vignettes. Yet if this stage version of “The Twilight Zone” stutters, it’s a question of style. A boisterous cast hammer home the geez-whizz style of old-school black-and-white TV, and they’re forever drifting off into Serling’s trademark, convoluted asides and swirling around cheap cardboard cut-outs of concentric circles and Einsteinian equations. But the show itself ends up caught between worlds: Washburn’s versions are too reverent to slip into outright, carefree spoof, but since Jones pokes fun at the retro-futurist schlock, it can’t remotely unsettle, either.
However, the playwright nudges us into another way of watching. Her script is “like puzzle pieces adding up to a picture,” and by skipping between stories on shuffle, Washburn lets repeated images and motifs swim to the surface. Spacemen and aliens, yes, but also invasion and oblivion, and all sorts of people stuck between states – waking and sleeping, youth and old-age, this dimension and the next.
Gradually, skillfully, Washburn hones in on America’s anxieties of the time. In a story called “The Shelter,” set against an incoming nuclear strike, a close-knit, white-picket community rips itself apart fighting for space in an atomic bunker. Racial tensions boil over, wealth gaps hit home, and if it feels horribly recognizable today, it ties Trump’s America into the tensions of that time. Squint through “The Twilight Zone” and you see Cold War America: as fearful for its future as it is hopeful. Twilight is, after all, a period of change, a slow slide from one state to another. Small wonder so many of Serling’s stories are haunted by oblivion.