That’s the episode of “The Twilight Zone,” you may remember, in which a community fretting about nuclear attack finds itself succumbing to rancor and hatred as it prepares for the worst. As tweaked by the playwright to chime with our own grievous times, the discussion widens to fold racism and xenophobia into the mix: a laudable impulse, in principle, that has the paradoxical effect of stopping the production dead in its tracks in favor of the sort of heavy-going debate that one might find in the comments section of many an article online.
In design terms, the aptly monochrome nature of Paul Steinberg’s set enfolds the action within an enormous TV screen that frames the stage, within which is suspended a second, smaller screen on which snippets get played out. The deliberately low-tech usage of props swirling in and out of view begins to pall after a while, as do rotating discs emblazoned with period psychedelia or equations like E=mc² — the proceedings watched over by a starry galaxy suggesting dimensions unknown. (The spectral lighting is by the expert Mimi Jordan Sherin.)
The 10-strong cast (plus three supernumeraries on hand to move scenery) easefully juggle multiple roles, even if their assignments sometimes pad a production that loses focus along the way. A vampy song-and-dance number for the musical theater actress Lizzy Connolly late in Act 1 doesn’t deliver, and you may be surprised to find a talking doll able to quote Norma Desmond from “Sunset Boulevard.” There’s a potential head-scratcher in a running gag involving the mysterious appearance, or absence, of cigarettes until one recalls that Mr. Serling, an avid smoker, had advertised Chesterfields on air.
In performance terms, the production is inevitably dominated by John Marquez — a regular in Mr. Jones’s theater work over the years — as this show’s very own Serling equivalent, referred to only as “Narrator.” Possessed of the series creator’s strong eyebrows, Mr. Marquez leads us into a world of the unknown, rife with admonitions about the here and now. And it’s surely not this fine actor’s fault if one feels an urge to change a late-in-the-play reference from “a little hectoring” to a more accurate “abiding preachiness,” of which there is quite a lot.
The Royal Court, to its credit, remains the London playhouse that most consistently broadens a perspective on our world, as its concurrent offerings bear out, albeit to mixed results. (Both plays finish Dec. 23.) Upstairs in the 89-seat studio space is “Bad Roads” from Natal’ya Vorozhbit, a Ukrainian playwright whose piece, set on the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, amounts to a grim report from the front line of a country besieged by violence and war. (The English-language translation is by Sasha Dugdale.)
Occurring within a pine forest that would seem to be shedding its skin, the six stories on view introduce us to a citizenry eager to save theirs. The director is Vicky Featherstone, who runs the Royal Court and has led us before into a “Twilight Zone”-like landscape of foreboding and fear. “Bad Roads” gains in immediacy from its status as an essential dispatch from an actual locale that most of us will never see, even if the extremes of human behavior depicted here surely know no boundaries.
The less compelling “Goats,” downstairs on the main stage, refracts the war in Syria through the disturbing lens of a communal landscape that aims to reward families who have lost a son with compensation in the form of a goat. A study in martyrdom and in keeping going when lives are upended, Liwaa Yazji’s play (translated by Katharine Halls) devolves into shouty overkill in the second act, risky considering that quite a few audience members did not return after intermission.
On the other hand, there’s no denying the appeal — in a theater year that has already seen a revival of Edward Albee’s metaphor-laden “The Goat” — of finding six actual quadrupeds sharing the proceedings with a hard-working cast that cannot help but be upstaged by the gentle creatures. The animals, whose names include Eek, Squeak and Belle, communicate a preternatural sense of calm that may represent the best corrective of all to a fractious age.