Lucas Hnath's play pushes biographical boundaries at Urbanite Theatre
Urbanite Theatre is currently serving up Lucas Hnath’s “Isaac’s Eye,” a post-modern gumbo of fact and fiction about the life of Sir Isaac Newton. Of course, when it comes to the great physicist, the lines of fiction and fact are blurred to begin with.
Newton sat under the apple tree, got bonked on the head by an apple and comes up with the theory of gravity. Not true. Newton stuck a needle in his tear duct and pressed it against his eye to investigate the properties of light. True—if you believe Newton’s diary. Contrary to urban legend, he did not invent Fig Newtons.
So, what’s real and what isn’t?
Hnath’s helpful narrator (Tony Stopperan) tells us that Newton (Ben Williamson) believed the universe was filled with an invisible substance called ether. Actually, it isn’t, but the ethereal notion helped Newton think about the universe.
In the same way, “… there are also things in this play that are not true. But like ether, the lies are here to help make sense of the things that are true.”
To clarify matters, the narrator spells out the facts on a giant blackboard. That way, you’ll know that the events on stage are mostly helpful lies. In case you forget the play’s a play, the narrator announces each act and scene. The result is a crisp lesson on what didn’t happen.
In the events that didn’t unfold, young Newton wants to get into the Royal Society (a 17th century scientific think tank) and needs middle-aged Robert Hooke (Robby May) to open the door. Hooke wants to keep Newton out, because Newton’s theory of optics supersedes his own.
After exchanging letters, Hooke shows up in Newton’s hick town and, with all the charm of Ming the Merciless, attempts to kick Newton’s ambitions to the curb. But the lad isn’t so easily dissuaded. The stakes escalate to a game of mutual blackmail and a love triangle between Hooke, Newton and Newton’s girlfriend, Catherine (Kim Stephenson).
Hooke deduces that Newton doesn’t actually perform his experiments, because he thinks he knows God’s mind. He dares Newton to actually go through with one of his most audacious exercises which would be, hmmm ... the one where he sticks a bodkin in his tear duct and jams it against his eyeball.
And that’s when things get interesting …
There’s no point in saying what happens next, because it didn’t. The main narrative is a lie. (I know, because it’s not on the blackboard.) We all know what actually happened: Newton got into the Royal Society, cooked up calculus, hatched the theory of gravity and didn’t put his eye out. There’s a good chance he burned Hooke’s portrait. (I know. I saw it on “Cosmos.”)
Director Vincent Carlson-Brown serves up this mad-science lesson with brio.
The action unfolds in the shadow of a giant blackboard (excellent set design by Seth Graham) and anachronistic dialog resembling the characters on “Entourage” in a bad mood. Is nothing sacred? Evidently not—but it’s very funny.
Stopperan, as the narrator, conveys the play’s untruths with manic delivery worthy of John Cleese, while occasionally filling in as the odd plague victim. Williamson’s Newton resembles a petulant, ex-child prodigy: an egomaniacal rock star who takes oceans of applause as his birthright.
May’s Hooke reacts to him the way Elvis greeted the Beatles. While he’s no scientific slouch, he rightly sees Newton as a threat. (There’s a law named after me!” he cries at one point.) He’s a cold creep who burst dogs’ lungs to test a theory and offers to take a plague victim to a hospital in exchange for three pieces of his flesh. Hooke gets results with persistence and occasional cruelty, but lacks Newton’s sheer inspiration. The play hinges on Stephenson’s Catherine. She’s the normal one, the sane one, the sexy one—Newton’s tether to the earth that keeps him from drifting to the heavens.
It’s a highly entertaining play, full of comedy, both broad and brainy. The Urbanites bring it to life with smart directing, surreal staging and fine acting. You get caught up in the mad, post-modern gallimaufry. But apart from sheer cleverness, there really is a point. Like some crazed teaching machine worthy of “Fibber McGee and Molly,” the play goes to a lot of trouble to answer a very simple, human question:
Why did Sir Isaac Newton turn his back on love?
The real-life Newton had a relationship with the real-life Catherine Storey (and punched her brother in the face). For some reason, Newton left her and spent the rest of his days living a monastic life in a solitary pursuit of scientific truth. Why did he make that decision? The playwright has said he created “Isaac’s Eye” as a thought-experiment designed to answer that question.
So, Newton rejected love for science. Why? Narcissistic egomania?
It doesn’t add up.
I think Hnath’s experiment comes to the wrong conclusion.
Read the words of real physicists like Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein or Sir Isaac Newton, for that matter. They get into trippy raptures about the order of the universe. Egomania isn’t their style. They’re in love with, and astonished by, the Cosmos, not self.
This play’s got a lot going for it.
Rapture is the one missing element.
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