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A CurtainUp Review


If not a tidal wave, there's certainly a steady ripple of plays about characters from the world of science and technology. In the last year alone we've reviewed a half a dozen science and technology related plays. These included a highly inventive puppet show about the pioneer inventor Nikolas Tesla (The Lone Runner), a delightful family musical about a young girl's journey through a sub-atomic world populated by dancing and singing electrons and neutrons (Quark Victory), and an intriguing mystery spanning two centuries (An Experiment With an Air Pump). Our London critic's take on the meeting between physicist Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, the theorist behind the uncertainty principle (Copenhagen) makes that surprise hit's transfer to Broadway a much anticipated event.

In the meantime, here's the versatile Tina Landau (director, composer-lyricist as well as playwright) with the New York premiere of Space a play commissioned by the Steppenwolf Theater Company. It's the story of Dr. Allan Saunders (Tom Irwin), a celebrated university neuropsychiatrist who's modelled after a Harvard professor named John E. Mack. Its not very dramatic arc follows the collapse of Saunders' egocentric and self-assured universe when he starts to believe that there's something to the claims of alien abduction by three very different but normal looking patients.

Like her last work to be seen in New York, the musical Dream True, this is a beautiful to look at production. Projectionist Jan Hartley and lighting designer Scott Zielinski, who greatly enhanced that flawed but fascinating enterprise, once again bring the stage alive with their wizardry. Against James Schuette's elegant set, these talented technicians transform Martinson Hall, an architectural treasure in its own right, into a brilliant universe of stars, planets and galaxies.

Unfortunately, while the visual aspects of Space are stunningly realized, the script is not. The staging and all the sentiments voiced about whether science is "acquisition of knowledge and power" (about which Saunders has written a book) or "the acquisition of humility" create an aura of profundity which, like the emperor's clothes, prove to be more platitudinous than profound. The stop and smell the roses message is to stop and look at the stars so you can "listen deeply. "

There's nothing wrong with this theme, except that the issues raised are awash in a flood of talk. There's nothing wrong either with using a romance to put big questions about the cosmos into human perspective; that is, if the relationship develops convincingly as that between Dr. Saunders and Dr. Bernadette Jump Cannon, (Amy Morton) does not. Their tête-à-têtes are debates peppered with references to famous writers, scientists and philosphers which do little to persuade us that either one could stop thinking long enough to feel. Bernadette at one point uses Galileo, Darwin and Freud to prove that the top of the kowledge chain is ever changing -- the inventor of the telescope went blind, the man who championed man's superiority beause he stood upright became a cripple, and the inventor of "the talking cure"" lost his voice. Interesting as all this is, one can't help wishing both doctors would shut up and act on their sexual feelings.

Ms. Landau who has been widely quoted as saying she neither reads science fiction or watches the X-Files or Star Trek, might have benefitted from taking a look at how some of the best sci-fi books and these shows create rounded, memorable characters. The theatricality of Space notwithstanding, most of its characters remain shadowy underdeveloped cardboard cutouts. The exception is Dr. Jim Lacey (played with compelling exasperation by Larry Keith) the department head who tries to keep his "star" from undermining his career and the university's reputation over the three alien abductees. Those abductees should be fascinating and revealing characters -- Taj Mahal (Teagle F. Bougere) a brilliant, all-knowing tough bike courier; Joan Bailey (Krisitine Nielsen), a cheery on the surface wife, mother and administrator at the college; and Devin McFallen (Andersen Gabrych), a young man with a lengthy and troubled psychological history. In fact they might serve better as the center of the drama than the gabby Dr. Saunders. An eighth character identified only as the singer (Theresa McCarthy), floats on and off stage periodically, a sort of space-y bride, who sounds good (as does all of Rob Milburn's & Michael Bodeen's original music) but serves no discernible purpose except to underscore the more pretentious elements of this play.

While Ms. Landau's deserves praise for the physical production another director might have pulled the reins on the main character's endless babble. When it finally stops for a genuinely moving two minutes of silent contemplation of the stars, it's too late for us to feel anything but relief. Perhaps Broadway and film producer Jim Stern, who bought screen rights to the script, will edit some of Dr. Saunders' verbal excess and expand on those more interesting but so far underdeveloped alien abductees. In the production now at the Papp, the characters never lose the fuzziness of our reproduction of the press photo. The result is a play that touches us visually but not viscerally.

Links to Shows Mentioned
Dream True
Experiment With an Air Pump
Quark Victory
Tesla's Letters
The Lone Runner

Written and directed by Tina Landau
With: Teagle F. Bougere, Andersen Gabrych, Tom Irwin, Larry Keith, Theresa McCarthy, Amy Morton, Kristine Nielsen and Daniel Lee Smith
Set Design: James Schuette
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Costume Design: Melina Root
Original Music & Sound: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Projections: Jan Hartley
Public Theater/Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette St. 260-24002
11/16/99-12/19/99; opening 12/05/99
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 12/03/99 performance

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