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Theatre in Review: The Light Years (Playwrights Horizons)

Aya Cash, Ken Barnett, Graydon Peter Yosowitz. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Steele MacKaye, a prominent theatre figure of the nineteenth century, was what Variety likes to call a "multi-hyphenate," in his case, a writer, director, producer, theatre manager, and inventor. If he is remembered at all today, it is for the "Spectatorium," an elaborate stage extravaganza, to be presented in a dedicated auditorium, which is the spiritual ancestor of today's spectacles, such as those produced by Cirque du Soleil or Franco Dragone. Unlike them, it never opened, a victim of its own ambitions and the fiscal panic of 1893. MacKaye and his Spectatorium are central to The Light Years, which seems oddly appropriate, as playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen have conceived a complex, clanking piece of dramatic machinery that produces such tiny and inconsequential revelations that one has to wonder if all that effort was really worth it.

The Light Years is a tale of two world's fairs, both of them set in Chicago. In 1893, Hillary, a young electrician, is working on the Spectatorium, helping to create MacKaye's scenic/lighting effects. Hillary, who is poor, is married to Adeline, who comes from a wealthy, well-connected family and is a forthright, independent young woman who supplements Hillary's income by selling tea. Both Hillary and Adeline are in thrall to MacKaye's vision -- Adeline is always slipping into the Spectatorium for a look, even though visitors are barred -- and are thrilled when the great man agrees to appear for dinner at their home.

In 1933, Lou, a songwriter, the sort of ever-hopeful fellow who is one hit away from making a killing, as the play begins is busy composing ditties on spec for the various industrial firms exhibiting at the world's fair. Lou is married to tough, cheerful, practical Ruth, who takes on odd jobs selling pancakes and other products on the midway. Nevertheless, for all their efforts, the little family, which includes their son, Charlie, is on this side of starvation.

Bos and Thureen, who conceived the piece with their director, Oliver Butler -- all three are founders of the avant-garde troupe The Debate Society -- have created a diptych of American dreamers at two very different points in American history. For Hillary and his associate, Hong Sling, electricity is an unruly element, waiting to be fully tamed, in a world where electric lighting is still a wonderful novelty. (A good portion of their scenes focus on the "Mooncart," an illuminated planet that is to be a major feature of MacKaye's show, and which resists their best efforts at wiring.) Whatever troubles Hillary and Adeline face, their lives are informed by their era's fundamental belief in progress and the power of science. They may live in a world where parks are populated by sheep and a horse can drop dead in the street, its smell infecting the neighborhood, but they are certain that a bright and beautiful world is just around the corner -- until, one night, Adeline makes a simple, catastrophically wrong decision, and everything changes.

Lou and Ruth, who present brashly optimistic faces to the world, are struggling to get by in a country hobbled by financial depression. Lou kills himself turning out numbers about the wonders of margarine and metals -- Seeking inspiration, he asks Ruth, "When you think of chromium-plated aluminum . . . what comes to mind?" -- but he is clearly a musical Willy Loman, and, one by one, his dreams fall away, until, unable to face his wife and son, he makes a choice that will prove devastating to them.

The authors take their own sweet time before revealing the connection that links these two narrative lines, which proves to be both poignant and a little tenuous. But what really makes The Light Years so lackluster is that, MacKaye aside, none of these characters are very interesting. Hillary and Adeline spend most of their time marveling breathlessly about the wonders of their age -- including the bicycle, which Adeline rides into the Spectatorium, flouting the rules and risking her safety. Lou and Ruth have been airlifted out of the Warner Brothers lot -- say, one of those pictures starring Joan Blondell and Dick Powell as showbiz hopefuls. At a running time of only one hour and forty minutes, Bos and Thureen could have taken a little more time to flesh out these paper dolls; instead, they exist only as figures in their creators' grand design. When that design is finally revealed, its fundamental ideas -- about the passage of time, the evanescence of hope, mankind's eternal certainty that utopia is just around the corner -- aren't strong, or strongly articulated, enough to justify the effort.

This is especially unfortunate, since the stage is filled with such appealing performers. Aya Cash pulls off a nifty double act as busy, clear-eyed Adeline and tough-talking, tender-hearted Ruth. (She is particularly touching as Ruth near the finale, facing her bleak future with rock-like stoicism.) Erik Lochtefeld's Hillary is a truly gentle soul, consumed with excitement over his work and marriage; later, without makeup, he convincingly transforms himself into an elderly recluse. Ken Barnett's Lou fluently delivers the authors' notion of 1930s slang -- eliciting a kiss from Ruth, he says, "Got some? Gimme some!" -- but there's a sadness under his smile that becomes genuinely heartbreaking when he realizes that his ship is never going to come in. There also solid contributions from Brian Lee Huynh as Hong Sling, who provides the most obvious connection between the two plot lines -- and who, as a diligent, hardworking immigrant, never indulges in the dreams that possess the other characters -- and Graydon Peter Yosowitz as Charlie, who, at an early age, has fully assimilated his parents' wisecracking ways. In a class by himself is Rocco Sisto as MacKaye, who cannot enter a room without striking a pose and making a pronouncement, yet whose enthusiasm is genuinely infectious. Turning to Hillary, he says, "You are not simply an electrician (though you are the very best of that profession) . . . you are not simply making magic for a madman (though that is quite possibly true) . . . You are illuminating the world." It's no wonder Hillary will do anything he asks.

Mirroring the sometimes overcomplicated script, Laura Jellinek has come up with a set that is top-heavy with design ideas. A red curtain parts to reveal a chocolate brown show curtain depicting the outside of the Spectatorium. For at least half of its running time, the play unfolds on a bare stage, with scenic flats turned away from the audience. At a certain point, everything comes together to depict Lou and Ruth's apartment -- which is still obviously a stage set. The Spectatorium curtain has an unusually low header, designed to conceal a crucial piece of scenery, which proves intrusive. The proscenium is covered with what looks like vintage circuit boards, which light up when MacKaye is detailing the wonders of his show; there's also the Mooncart, which mysteriously turns up forty years later in Lou and Ruth's apartment and is used as a bedroom for Charlie. It's a lot of stuff and I can't say that the effect isn't more than a little cluttered; the Mooncart and proscenium lighting effects were presumably developed in concert with the lighting designer, Russell H. Champa, who also provides distinct looks for each time frame. Michael Krass' costumes are solid, attractive period creations; he also has a great deal of fun with MacKaye, who affects a modified doublet-and-cape look for social occasions. Lee Kinney's sound design provides fine reinforcement for Daniel Kluger's attractive original music, along with such effects as electric shocks.

The idea of building a show around world's fairs -- those representations of the spirit of their age -- is a promising one, and it's too bad that The Light Years lacks a clearer sense of purpose. In the end, it's not unlike the Spectatorium, an elaborate dream that never comes to fruition. -- David Barbour

(23 March 2017)

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