Wednesday, March 22, 2017

159. Review: THE LIGHT YEARS (seen March 22, 2017)

"It Had to Be Moonglow"

One of the most fascinating theatrical biographies I ever read was Epoch: The Life of Steele MacKaye (1927), by MacKaye’s son, Percy. The elder MacKaye (1842-1894), although little known today, was a mind-bogglingly creative, all-around genius, a successful playwright, actor, teacher, director, inventor, and innovative dreamer.
 
Rocco Sisto, Erik Lochtefeld. Photo:Joan Marcus.
MacKaye’s final, tragically unfulfilled dream for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893—a 12,000-seat theatre called the “Spectatorium” for viewing a recreation of Columbus’s discovery of America—is the daunting subject of a new play, The Light Years, until it isn’t. Written by Hannah Box and Paul Thureen over a period of seven years, and developed and directed by Oliver Butler for the adventurous group called The Debate Society, it’s getting an impressively elaborate Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons. Nonetheless, The Light Years is itself an example of unfulfilled promise. 
Graydon Peter Yosowitz, Aya Cash. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The hour and 45-minute, intermission-free play covers forty years between the 1893 World’s Fair, when MacKaye was building his gigantic theatre on the shore of Lake Michigan, and Chicago’s second one, in 1933. Tying the two together is the fictional story of an electrician named Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld), who, with another electrician, a Chinese man called Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh), seeks across the years to finish the complex lighting for a large globe—called a “mooncart”—representing the moon to be used in MacKaye’s extravaganza. No longer having a practical purpose, their collaboration appears to have no other goal than the men’s own need to finish something they’ve started. 
Bran Lee Huynh, Erik Lochtefeld. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The principal action is set within a false proscenium whose upstage side is turned toward the audience, where dozens of bulbs—their light intended to be seen on the opposite side—flash on and off as needed. (Some scenes are also played in the auditorium.) At first we see a rather elaborate arrangement of machinery and movable units suggesting the dusty workshop where Hillary and Hong do their work, with sparks flying and gadgets exploding when things go wrong: kudos to lighting designer Russell H. Champa and sound designer Lee Kinney. Hillary, however, draws support from his wealthy, high-spirited, bicycle-riding wife, Adeline (Aya Cash), whose curiosity provides the shock of her life. 
Aya Cash, Rocco Sisto, Erik Lochtefeld. Photo: Joan Marcus.
We then watch the stage transform (Laura Jellinek is the designer) into a house that is first Hillary and Adeline’s, then Hong’s, where he rapidly grows old before renting it in 1933 to the family of a struggling jingle writer/pianist named Lou (Ken Barnett), his patiently enduring wife, Ruth (Cash), and their wide-eyed kid, Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz).This allows for a nice contrast between the clothing, manners, and language of the 1890s and the Depression-era, but little else; the fine period costumes are by Michael Krass. Present upstage throughout is the mooncart, in which Charlie likes to sleep.
Aya Cash, Ken Barnett, Graydon Peter Yosowitz. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A bucket hanging outside the window is the means by which Lou and Ruth pay their rent to whoever’s living in the attic, of which we get to see only the bottom few feet before the entire place is exposed, with Hillary there. He and Hong, you see, have been continually working to make the moon work, never giving up on their dream over four decades, while downstairs, the at-first optimistic Lou, unable to sell any of his jingles (music by Daniel Kluger) or get a “club” gig, grows depressed; the faithful Ruth, selling pancakes at the exposition, becomes the family breadwinner. (Barnett, by the way, plays a mean piano, including a hot version of “Honeysuckle Rose.”) 
Brian Lee Huynh, Graydon Peter Yosowitz. Photo: Joan Marcus.
These time-spanning events are accompanied by loads of first-person historical narrative, presented by MacKaye (Rocco Sisto) himself, and by a vertical screen at stage right (the Silent Unfolding Announcer) on which tidbits of information, including the relevant years, scroll by. Most of the acting has a larger-than-life, self-consciously theatrical quality, making the characters seem more like cardboard creations than flesh-and-blood people. Most distressingly, Sisto, playing MacKaye as a grand impresario, turns him into a hammy, old-fashioned Shakespearean cum P.T. Barnum; this sometimes gives him a buffoonish air that robs him of his historical significance. 
Aya Cash, Ken Barnett. Photo: Joan Marc
I can’t say why The Debate Society chose to tell the story of MacKaye’s Spectatorium, which failed because of an 1893 financial panic, through the domestic travails of Hong, Hillary, and the jingle writer’s family. The concept seems forced in order to make a point about following one’s dream, and to offer a theatrical image of differences in American society across the years. MacKaye’s tale alone, and what he went through before having to scale back his goals, would have made a far more interesting play about American aspiration and technological progress, especially if some creative means had been found to represent what he was after. Here we get some light but very little illumination. 
Aya Cash, Ken Barnett, Graydon Peter Yosowitz. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When the final scene arrives and Hillary and Hong achieve their own dream, you might appreciate how pretty it is but also wonder—given the technical means available in 1933 (just look at any movie spectacle of the time)—what’s so special about it. Or what it has to do with that mooncart still sitting unlit in the room downstairs when the lights go down.

 OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 2

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