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The Light Years
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: The Light Years shines a bright light on old, weird Americana

Written by
David Cote

“Tomorrow,” that homely nickname for the future, has inspired Broadway anthems and Shakespearean speeches, and it traces a melancholy arc across The Light Years, a theatrical cabinet of wonders at Playwrights Horizons. Split between 1893 and 1933 in Chicago, this wistful, cockeyed period play celebrates American dreamers and strivers, and the inventor’s willingness to fail—even to the point of electrocution.

It’s the most ambitious contraption assembled to date by the 10-year-old Debate Society (Jacuzzi), which consists of writer-actors Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and director Oliver Butler. Bos and Thureen don’t appear in the show, but their sweetly off-kilter sensibilities inform the performances, which are carefully executed between ironic distance and child-like innocence. Aya Cash plays two spunky, high-spirited women on tragic life paths; Eric Lochtefeld bustles adorably as an engineer at the 1893 World’s Fair; and Ken Barnett maintains a chipper facade as a plucky jingle writer. Basso-voiced Rocco Sisto anchors both decades as the grandly ridiculous Steele MacKaye, theatrical impresario.

Driven not so much by plot as by coincidence and fate, the story follows the doomed construction of the 12,000-seat Spectatorium, MacKaye’s mad dream of a megatheater, which Lochtefeld’s Hillary is laboring doggedly to realize—amid thousand-volt shocks and showers of sparks. Hillary’s wife, Adeline (Cash) is crazy for those new-fangled bicycles. The sweetly idealistic scenes of 1893 are intercut with ones 40 years later during the Great Depression. Here Cash plays Ruth, a mother and wife trying to keep her family together through lean times. Ruth’s path crosses with the now aged Hillary in touching and surprising ways that constitute the delicate, mystical strain of this piece.

Laura Jellinek’s versatile set design allows the play to shuttle between time periods, and Russell H. Champa’s lighting design is both key to the story and glowingly lovely in itself. Butler’s direction holds it all tougher, even if the first hour seems a trifle padded and meandering. While The Light Years is ultimately tenuous in its dramatic circuitry, it gives off ample luminosity, powered by whimsy and wonder.

Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. Directed by Oliver Butler. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission. Through Apr 2. Click here for tickets.   

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