Alistair McDowall’s twisty, darkly comic thriller is set in 2010, but as it opens, 19-year-old Luke (Curtis Edward Jackson) is lying on a dingy couch in a run-down flat playing Tetris on what looks to be an early ’90s-vintage Game Boy. The setting is Middlesbrough, a blighted industrial city in the north of England where poverty and drugs loom large over blocks of boarded-up houses. The local mood is so dire that people hardly blink at the fact that Luke’s drug-dealing chav brother, Rob (Ryan McBride), leads a near-catatonic junkie (Will Kinnear) around on a dog’s leash. Luke, though hobbled socially by a heavy stutter, is a verifiable self-taught scientific genius. And that unassuming stack of cardboard boxes in the corner? That’s actually a working time machine.
McDowall, a rising young English playwright receiving his first U.S. production at Steep, has crafted an intriguing blend of social commentary and science fiction. Luke refuses to use his invention due to the daunting ethical implications—a stance that’s menacingly challenged when Ben (Peter Moore), a ruthless hood from London who’s arrived to flash enough cash to make a personal army out of Middlesbrough’s desperate populace, learns what it can do. Ben, whose business philosophy is “you have to stop romanticizing people,” aims to acquire the box by any means necessary; when Luke refuses to sell, Ben’s all too happy to resort to violence. But once you’ve introduced a time machine—well, it’s kind of like Chekhov’s rule about guns.
Robin Witt’s crack staging balances the contrasting genre conventions nicely, keeping the fanciful elements introduced in Act II, after the gun’s gone off, so to speak. (Let’s just say there’s a second actor, Ty Olwin, also credited in the program as Luke, and he and Jackson aren’t alternating nights.) Even as the laws of physics are broken, the stakes remain fully grounded. There’s a one-sided conversation between Olwin and McBride that’s heartbreaking for what Olwin’s Luke can’t say. Olwin matches Jackson’s original Luke in conveying flashing intelligence tempered with timidity, stubbornness with loyalty. But it’s Jackson who carries the play through to its riveting, intentionally ambiguous ending.
Steep Theatre. By Alistair McDowall. Directed by Robin Witt. With Curtis Edward Jackson, Ty Olwin, Brandon Rivera, Ryan McBride, Will Kinnear, Peter Moore. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.