BWW Review: THE LIGHT YEARS Salutes Starry-Eyed Innovators Who Remain Earthbound
At the beginning of The Debate Society's premiere production of The Light Years (written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, developed and directed by Oliver Butler) we're told that Arcturus, the star that guided Christopher Columbus to what he believed to be India, is precisely forty light years away from Earth.
Those who think romantically about such things may find themselves fascinated at how light emitted from that heavenly body in 1893, the year Chicago's World's Fair saluted the 400th anniversary of the captain's invasion of this continent, reached the planet just in time to light up the happy and excited faces attending the city's 1933 world's fair.
And if such romantic types are disappointed to find out that Arcturus' 1893 rays of light actually reached Earth on an uneventful day 36.7 years later, well, that kind of disappointment is what this odd little salute to dashed dreams is all about.
The audience is greeted by a traditional red theatre curtain - a rarity for performances at Playwrights Horizons - that splits in the middle to reveal Rocco Sisto playing the gravely artistic theatre impresario Steele MacKaye, who, among other achievements, was the inventor of the Silent Unfolding Announcer, a scrolling device that displays titles, settings and other necessary information during a production. (Naturally, one is prominently featured in Laura Jellinek's impressive, period-evoking set.)
For the 1893 fair, MacKaye designed the Spectatorium, a spectacularly ornate 12,000 seat theatre that would have housed his grand production of "The World Finder" if the overpriced and underfunded building could have been completed.
The play's first act concerns an electrician named Hillary (Eric Lochtefeld) who, with his assistant Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh), is not only tasked to wire the Spectatorium, but to do the same with a massive prop representing the moon, meant to be one of MacKaye's showstopping effects.
Despite numerous setbacks, many of which set off large sparks of electricity, Hillary cheerfully attacks his work. His wife Adeline (Aya Cash) can't wait to see the wonders her husband helped create as the two of them marvel at tomorrow's unlimited potential.
In the second act, set in 1933, Cash is once again the wife of an ambitious fellow with big dreams. This time it's songwriter Lou (Ken Barnett). The financially strapped couple, raising a eleven-year-old son (Graydon Peter Yosowitz) also look to the future optimistically, as Lou has a new gig pitching jingles to the fair's sponsors. The audience can judge his talent by the ditty he pens about Minnesconsin Margarine.
Audiences love a good story about pioneering innovators who succeed despite the odds, and The Light Years' affection for those who fail despite a grand effort is certainly worthy.
The cast does a terrific job, but while the play has amusing and empathetic moments, the evening quickly loses steam when the authors start getting philosophical in their attempts to establish a connection between the two sets of characters.
But when Jellinek and lighting designer Russell H. Champa team up to recreate 19th Century versions of illuminating stage craft representing the heavens; that's when the production sweetly captures the imagination, as audiences today can experience the thrill that audiences of over a hundred years ago felt envisioning the limitless universe through theatre effects.