Gore Vidal’s 1956 play “A Visit to a Small Planet” might not be familiar, but its plot and characters have been ubiquitous in sci-fi pop culture for the past half-century.

“I can name two ‘Star Trek’ episodes that are direct steals from this script, and there are [scenes] from ‘Alf’ and ‘Third Rock From the Sun’ that were also steals from this script,” says Rip Claassen, director of American Century Theater’s production of “Small Planet.” “The whole premise of ‘My Favorite Martian’ was a direct steal. It’s amazing that the script has been largely forgotten,” he says, “considering how major an influence it’s been on our culture.”

Originally produced as a television play and reworked for Broadway in the mid 1950s, “Small Planet” is a familiar tale indeed: A creature in a UFO lands in suburban America and makes contact with humans in a hilarious culture clash — particularly when the alien tries to blend in.

In this production, Kreton, an alien from an intellectually superior planet, lands in Manassas, Va., in 1958, dressed for and intending to watch the Battle of Bull Run. Disappointed by his error in time travel but still curious about 20th-century earthlings, Kreton (Bruce Alan Rauscher) stays and gets to know the bureaucratic General Tom Powers (John Tweel) and the average but accommodating Spelding family. Then, for his own enjoyment, he decides to trigger a war.

Unlike many extraterrestrial characters in pop culture, Kreton is more funny than fearsome. And as a bona fide “alien observer,” he’s an apt critic of our culture.

“It’s easier to laugh at someone else’s look at our society, pointing out the things that
are so obnoxious, stupid and not thoughtful that we cling to,” says Claassen, who has been a fan of the play since he first read it at age 14 in 1976. “If an alien criticizes it, we can laugh. If we criticize it ourselves, it’s not so easy.”

“A Visit to a Small Planet” includes an important feline character: Rosemary Spelding. “Rosemary is Kreton’s confidant. Batman has his Robin; Kreton has his Rosemary,” director Rip Claassen says.

» Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington; opens Fri., runs through Aug. 6, see Americancentury.org for times; $27-$35; 703-998-4555.

Image courtesy of American Century Theater