Review: In ‘Unexploded Ordnances,’ It’s an Hour to Doomsday. Help!

Posted January 8, 2018 5:42 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Planes carrying nukes, the terrifying sound of life atomized into static noise: “Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)” feels very much of the minute.

Yet the feminist duo Split Britches has spent almost two years working on its new play, which bears the 1960s aesthetic of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” rather than the totalitarian kitsch of Kim Jong Un, so you can’t accuse the company of hot-button opportunism. These theater-makers have steadfastly remained on the outer edge of the mainstream since 1980.

While it’s impossible to avoid the (mushroom) cloud hovering above the show — which is at La MaMa as part of the Under the Radar festival — Split Britches co-founders Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, who perform in “Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)” and wrote it with Hannah Maxwell, take a broader view. This is only fitting for a pair that has long explored the connections between gender roles, class, feminism and homosexuality against a background of American political and literary mythmaking.

The title refers to buried or forgotten munitions, and the problem, as Weaver puts it onstage, is that “we don’t know where UXOs are exactly, what energy is left in them, what would happen if we uncovered one — we just know we should be careful with our curiosity.” By extension, the show suggests that potentially dangerous ammo includes our pent-up desires and abandoned dreams.

Sitting at a situation room’s round table, Weaver, who also directs, portrays an unnamed President in a blazer, short skirt and sock garters. She is a dryly comic foil to Shaw’s General — a part played with such sly machismo, you wish someone would cast her in a Tom Clancy adaptation.

Weaver, however, sometimes breaks character and it may be “Lois” who invites volunteers to sit at the table for a “council of elders.” She selects the oldest audience members by asking questions such as “Who was born during World War II?” and “Who remembers the Cuban missile crisis?”

The approach reflects Split Britches’ long-standing interest in the personal and political impact of aging — Shaw once did a solo titled “Menopausal Gentleman” — as well as a staunch belief in the importance of talking things out.

At the Thursday performance, Weaver kept things moving, and when they slowed down, Shaw would remind her that the clock was ticking — earlier on, we had been asked to set our cellphone timers to an hour. Still, the show can feel structurally wobbly: It has a lot to say and is not always sure how to say it.

Inspired moments do bubble up, as when the country ballad “As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone” plays over a photo montage of world leaders holding receivers, or when the General picks up a ringing red telephone and sternly admonishes, “I told you never to call me here.”

It is also wonderful to watch the rapport Weaver and Shaw have forged over shared decades. When the ringing cellphones mark the end of the show, you wish you could continue chatting at the bar around the corner — nuclear winter can wait.

“Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)”

Through Jan. 21 at La MaMa, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, lamama.org. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.