Addison — It sounds like the setup to a joke: Why did Isaac Newton stick a needle in his eye?
But to playwright Lucas Hnath the fact that this isn’t a joke spurred the play, Isaac’s Eye, about light, love and life in which he pits giants of the Enlightenment Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke against each other.
But fear not the ruffles and wigs. Though Newton’s hair is white, in Outcry Theatre’s production, it comes via a couple of cans of spray paint self-applied feverishly. Fortunately, this sort of over-the-top attack from director Becca Johnson-Spinos doesn’t last too long and it soon gives way to some top-notch acting.
Before she calms down, though, she has her troupe tramp about in theatrical set-up formation readying a minimalist set for a lecture. The moveable prop table/counter and flanking flats are painted with chalkboard paint.
The easier to write things on.
You see, playwright Hnath will be blending fact and fiction but in an earnest attempt to avoid deceiving the unenlightened, facts will be reinforced by writing them on the board. The prop table, on the other hand, is used for less lofty intentions, for instance, monikers of locations like, “street.”
All of this post-Brechtian signifying is explained by the most energetic of the group, our narrator, identified as “Actor” and played by Jason Johnson-Spinos (who also designed the sound and projections). He’ll continue to break in and elucidate points with all the energy of a children’s science program where the teachers have to fill in the gaps of the students’ disinterest with their own forced enthusiasm.
The other members of the foursome are Price Wayne Christian as a driven, hipster Newton, Sarah Elizabeth Smith as his loyal girl, Catherine, and Duc Huu Nguyen as the self-assured man of science, Robert Hooke. Everyone is dressed for identifiable ease courtesy of Mr. Christian.
Mr. Christian’s Newton is Asperger-oblivious to the long-suffering longings of Ms. Smith’s Catherine. She wants a life with him now and he wants a life forever. To him scientific fame trumps death, but to achieve it he needs her to write a letter to Robert Hooke of the Royal Scientific Society. He hopes that his experiments on the nature light will impress Hooke enough to let him join.
Playwright Hnath hangs the plot on Isaac’s scientific hopes, placing Hooke in his path as a rival, at first, in light but then, in love. With modern dress, language and sensibilities, the whole thing turns into a sort of Enlightenment, 90210: the cool kid versus the nerd for the girl and everlasting scientific fame.
Unfortunately, the script is cleverer than the production at times. Missing is the sort of cheek required to place these two thinkers in a room together. The troupe takes itself a little too seriously. Worst is when Playwright Hnath resorts to a modern expletive and it clanks out of the actor’s mouth onto the floor like a Freshman trying to recreate a senior skit from the previous year.
This isn't to deny that the acting is superior at times. Mr. Christian keeps his Newton über-obtuse making the scientist’s path pretty predictable. Though his focus on his goal borders on the autistic, what he loses in dimensionality, he gains in believability. Mr. Nguyen is on the other end of the spectrum. His Hooke’s calm, human approach seriously challenges the audience. There’s no moustache twirling on this Iago. Ms. Smith doesn’t just play the love interest but more amazingly she manages to play interested in love with the twisted twosome. Everyone marvels at the actor who plays Richard III, but it’s the actress playing Lady Anne who has to be wooed and won over her husband’s coffin.
Hnath has written a play that makes a reviewer wax Shakespearean. The themes are as grand even if the language isn’t as great.
If you can take the latter, the former is worth it.
Cross my heart, hope to die.
Stick a needle in my eye.