After the first performance on Dec. 1, word spread: Luke Herzog ’24’s new play “We Open on a Red Desert” was good. It was so popular, in fact, that at its second performance on Dec. 3 some audience members ended up on the floor once all the seats were filled. Space-themed songs like David Bowie’s “Starman” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man” traveled through the speakers to prepare us for our journey through the stars — and to a Hollywood writers’ room.
“We Open on a Red Desert” isn’t Herzog’s first production with student theater group Ghostlight, who put on the play, nor is it his first space-themed script: Last semester, “Meteoric,” a short play written and directed by Herzog that centered around actors whose lives are suddenly upended by a meteor heading to Earth, premiered alongside another Ghostlight production, “BY You.”
The play, set in 2037, takes place entirely in a writers’ room where Alan (Tim Caroll ’25) has called together six Hollywood writers, including himself, to brainstorm the words Janelle Cooley, the first person ever to step foot on Mars, will say when she lands. The writers have their reservations, seeing as they have lives beyond the 10 days they will spend working together, but Alan plays them a clip of Janelle improvising on his handheld tape recorder, and once they hear her stumble and falter over her words, they all jump to sign the NDA promising not to speak about their work.
Alan assembled a group of vastly different writers: Charlie (Matt Vitelli ’24), the alleged stand-in for the “average idiot,” according to Alan, who believes the moon landing was faked by Stanley Kubrick, as evidenced by his Easter eggs in “The Shining”; Ed (Slate Taylor ’25), an Oscar-winning screenwriter and egotistical narcissist; Kelly (Stormie King ’25), a professor who hates a bad ending; Mae (AnLing Vera ’25), a celebrity ghostwriter; and Val (Isabelle Anderson ’25), a writer who has a mysterious past with Alan. They have 10 days to write the perfect line, one that will rival Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The play comprises very quick scenes that transition between each day and create space for characters to develop individually. In one scene, we find Kelly and Charlie alone. Charlie explains to her his theory that astronaut Mike Collins flew the module around the moon instead of landing because he was actually a werewolf, and the moon would have overpowered him. Kelly begins to encourage him and lifts her cool professor facade to bond with him.
Val also reveals that she was the showrunner of a hit series, “Astro Express,” but because of low ratings, they recently fired her. She believes that Alan pity-hired her, and the tension between them grows. Later during their break, Ed jumps on the table and sings the “Star Wars” theme, thinking that he’s alone — while Alan is in fact recording him from the shadows.
Between the character-building scenes are methodical and desperate attempts to get the line right. The players dissect Armstrong’s line with the quantitative approach of a math professor and debate whether they should reference the Mars landscape. (They decide no on this front.)
The next day, Alan shows the group a Nixon deep fake. He reads the “In Case of Moon Disaster” speech, as Alan is trying to prepare them for the possibility that all may not go well for Cooley. This upsets Kelly and Charlie goes to comfort her. At the same time, he flirts with her, and Kelly leans over to make out with him. Alan finds them, but they don’t notice, and they continue kissing while Alan backs out of the room.
The next day, terror strikes: TMZ raids the building with knowledge of their top-secret mission. They all cover their defenses, with Kelly finally admitting her alibi (that she was with Charlie all night) after denying it multiple times, and Mae comes forward. She was oblivious, she said, and just let it out to a nice man walking his dog, not knowing that he was a tabloid reporter. Though the other writers are frustrated with her, they understand her mistake, and Mae confides in Val about her insecurities regarding her writing. Val comforts her, but when she’s alone, she’s forced to confront Alan, who wants to talk about their divorce, again. Although things are beginning to thaw, it’s clear there’s still tension between them.
There are only two days left until the deadline, and Alan has everyone simulate the first steps and share their ideas. He gives his example: “Thanks, Mr. Armstrong, we’ll take it from here.” It’s deemed too much of a callback and doesn’t focus on Cooley’s accomplishments. Kelly goes next, saying, “In the name of peace, we have conquered the god of war.” Though it’s evocative, it’s deemed “not universal enough,” one of their primary goals. Charlie’s line is, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” referencing “The Wizard of Oz” and Cooley’s upbringing in the state, but everyone votes against it.
Val’s idea is, “This is for every little girl who gazes up at the galaxy — why not you?” Though others like it, Ed deems it “exclusionary” to boys, and his line, “This is as far from our origin and as close to our destiny as we’ve ever been. From the blue planet to the red and into the black,” is deemed the best in the bunch, so much so that Mae doesn’t even get to say her line. Once everyone else has left, she practices the steps, staring into the spotlight, but the lights cut before she says her line.
At their official vote the next day, Ed’s line wins, but Val reveals that she saw the same line on the internet, confirming Ed to be as “derivative” as he called her earlier. He screams at her for revealing his plagiarism and makes her cry before storming off.
Since his line is out, the rest of the writers agree to hear Mae’s line. The lights cut at “Houston—” and resume with everyone agreeing it’s perfect.
The day of the Mars landing, everyone is preparing for their watch party. Alan reveals that he recorded Ed’s meltdown on his tape recorder and that he can ruin his reputation, if Val wants. They finally discuss their relationship, no holds barred: Both agree that they wouldn’t have changed a thing about it. The group crowds around a retro TV (a callback to the original moon landing, TC says) and listen to Cooley’s first steps: “Houston, there is life on Mars.”
Once the characters developed a rapport with each other, it was delightful seeing them all interact with one another. The actors all had great chemistry and comfort on the stage. However, the first half of the play had a much slower pace than the second half, and the brainstorming scenes may have been tightened up more to allow room for those interpersonal relationships to flourish and transition into the fast pacing of the latter half of the play.
The dialogue and staging, though, were some of Herzog’s best. He encouraged the actors to rely on their own strengths while creating a clear vision for the production. It is a gift to be able to fully immerse an audience in a play and still see the complexities of the set, lighting, and stage management.
As Herzog graduates next semester, this is his last full-length play at Amherst. He was extremely pleased with the cast and production. “I can think of no better way to put a capstone on my Amherst theater experience than working with this talented and collaborative group of student actors,” he wrote in a statement to The Student. “It’s truly an ensemble, both in the play itself and during the rehearsal process.”
He is currently writing a creative senior thesis in English: a series of vignettes concerning peripheral figures in the Lincoln assassination who “each revealing another untold true story.” He hopes to stage a reading for it next semester, but for Herzog’s last full production at Amherst, “We Open on a Red Desert” was the best send-off he could have.