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The Light Years

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 13, 2017

Rocco Sisto, Aya Cash, and Erik Lochtefeld
Photo by Joan Marcus

Of all the irresistible forces in the universe, progress may be the toughest to slow down. And the progress of progress itself? Forget about it! The characters in The Light Years, the new play by The Debate Society that just opened at Playwrights Horizons, learn this lesson the hard way as progress swallows them all up—and washes the meal down with what's left of an economically ravaged America. No amount of human suffering, leavened or not by good intentions, can stop innovation. And the real lesson at work here—in more ways than one—is that that's sometimes a good thing, casualties be damned.

Writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, and "developer" and director Oliver Butler, have found ideal bookends for exploring and exploding this secluded corner of American Exceptionalism: Chicago in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. The city hosted two landmark world's fairs, the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the Century of Progress in 1933, that proposed enlightening new notions of science and achievement all as large chunks of the country were crumbling under, respectively, the Panic of 1893 and the Great Depression. That they're also united by the distance (in light years) from Earth to the star Arcturus, is, on one level incidental ("Her perfect distance tying two Fairs together with a ribbon of cosmic light," someone explains), but on another critical—keeping your eyes forever fixed upward while ignoring what's in front of you is as likely as not to create a very different set of problems.

This is the idea around which The Light Years revolves, unfolding more or less simultaneously in both decades. In 1893, a crack-shot electrician named Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld) is laboring with his assistant, Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh), to create a massive light display called the Mooncart. It will be incorporated into the Spectatorium, the epic brainchild of eccentric inventor and theatre impresario Steele MacKaye (Rocco Sisto), which will recount Christopher Columbus's journey to the New World four centuries earlier complete with genuine clouds, visible constellations, flying meteors, the Northern Lights, and, naturally, full-scale replicas of the NiƱa, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailing in from Lake Michigan, all against an 1,100-voice choir and before an audience of 12,000. (The Spectatorium, for the record, was a real venture; entirely unsurprisingly, it was never completed.)

Hillary's forward-thinking wife, Adeline (Aya Cash), who runs her own tea business and is among the first women in town to ride a bicycle, longs for secret glimpses of the Spectatorium. By contrast, Ruth (Cash again), in 1933, is the matriarch of a family just trying to make ends meet. Her husband, Lou (Ken Barnett), is a jingle composer who's paid in everything except money for his ditties about envelopes, rolled oats, and chromium-plated aluminum. They have an 11-year-old son named Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz) who's fascinated by the travel possibilities of the Graf Zeppelin and, aside from actually visiting the fair, wants nothing more than to buy a stamp that can carry a postcard on the Zeppelin to the South Pole and back. To feed these dreams, and fill their stomachs, Ruth must take odd and menial jobs at the fair, irritating Lou to no end.

Aya Cash, Ken Barnett, and Graydon Peter Yosowitz
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's difficult to say much more, as the gradual meeting and melding of the generations is the driving force of the intermissionless 100-minute evening. Or at least it's supposed to be. But despite the exciting, ironclad concept and a wealth of possibilities, the characters and the action are inert early on and preposterous later, without a smooth transition between the states. The sole energizing force is the women, and though Bos and Thureen extract impressive value from their investigation of the evolving role of women in academic and bread-winning pursuits, the men around them rarely come to life vividly enough to give their accomplishments meaning.

Myopic, dopey, and one-dimensional, the husbands cause far more problems than they solve, but society has not yet advanced to the point that, absent male aid, these women can clean up the messes on their own. Because the underlying themes regarding scientific development as represented by the fairs are not as robust as they need to be to support coming at the story from that direction, the disconnect with Ruth and Adeline leaves the play spinning its wheels early on and utterly senseless in its final scenes. Faced with the necessity of bridging the gap between earlier-then and later-then without possessing the proper building blocks, Bos and Thureen throw in a disorienting montage, the sudden promotion of a minor figure to near-secondary-lead importance, and a plot twist that not even the most charitable soul could consider improbable rather than impossible.

Such tricks may work in something more openly fantastic, but The Light Years is too rooted in the rational for that kind of thing to fly here. It's a shame, too, since Butler's staging, if too often sluggishly paced, is creative and opulent. With the help of scenic designer Laura Jellinek, lighting designer Russell H. Champa, and sound designer Lee Kinney, he's transformed the playing space into a Victorian theater that's all about making magic with prehistoric technology. (The whimsical costumes, also wonderful, are by Michael Krass.) The swiftly moving set pieces, splashy proscenium light displays, and witty use of the "Silent Unfolding Announcer," a constantly rolling series of title cards that orients us to the time and place, are all part in parcel with the script, but Butler gives them bold life of their own.

The same is not roundly true of the actors. Cash is quite fine as Adeline and Ruth, highlighting their innate inquisitive and enterprising qualities, without ever going further than she needs to in order to make them sympathetic. These are not traditional women, and Cash knows better than to play them traditionally; they're a new breed, and the touch of modernity fits in well with these surroundings. And Sisto is a comic dynamo as the ripped-from-real-life MacKaye, hilariously balancing artistic and scientific pretensions while maintaining the explorer's eye glimmer at every step along the way. The other performers work intensely, and land most of their laughs, but don't find the emotional connections that Cash and MacKaye do.

Not that there's that much to find. Bos and Thureen's broad and sweeping strokes prevent them from illuminating much outside the foot or so in front of its face. It's an ambitious evening, to be sure, but considering the tragedy unchecked ambition wreaks on most of those in this play, in isolation, that's nothing to be proud of. Like the Spectatorium itself, The Light Years is memorable more for what it tries than what it accomplishes.

The Light Years
Through April 2
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral