Theater review by Helen Shaw. Ensemble Studio Theatre. By Lucas Hnath. Dir. Linsay Firman. With ensemble cast. 2hrs. One intermission.
Credit where it’s due: Lucas Hnath’s Isaac’s Eye is 50 percent of a methodological triumph. Few plays are anywhere near as clever as Eye’s first act, but Hnath’s comic drama fritters away its promise. It creates spiky characters, then betrays them; it bubbles with specificity, then veers into cloying generality. Hnath’s postmodern drollery about superphysicist Isaac Newton itself suffers from a scientific woe: The experiment is precise, but it posits the wrong questions.
A prefame, pre-apple Newton (Haskell King) wants to reach the big time, but only his best friend, Catherine (Kristen Bush), has his back. Yet how can we tell which struggles are historically accurate and which are false? Our trusty narrator (Jeff Biehl) reassures us: Actors post any actual facts on a chalkboard. Hnath’s script and director Linsay Firman’s excellent production mesh in these delightful Brechtianisms: Biehl introduces “white-haired” Newton while King sulks nearby under his ink-black mop top; the titular 17th-century wunderkind talks like a modern-day teen. “Am I up shit creek?” he asks Robert Hooke (deliciously sly Michael Louis Serafin-Wells), the older scientist he hopes will get him into the Royal Society. Springboarding from true tidbits—Hooke kept an ejaculation diary, Newton may have had Asperger’s—the talented Hnath creates a disorienting, ironic atmosphere, a kind of Rushmore plus calculus. His relative inexperience surfaces only in the second act’s turn to Newton’s life-work balance (the Big Theme), introduced via an invented love triangle. Suddenly, we don’t believe a word. It was an era when scientists shoved needles into their own eyes to prove theories. Hnath will learn in time: A little loneliness wouldn’t have fazed ’em in the least.—Helen Shaw