The Light Years: Sparks Fly and Than (Almost) Nothing
With a grand gesture, we are invited to step back into another time. It’s a grand beginning courtesy of The Debate Society and Playwrights Horizons, centered around a flash and a bang. As developed and directed by Oliver Butler, we focus our eyes on the charming spectacular, a play called The Light Years, written by the team of Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. In turn, a soft light reveals a flamboyant impresario named Steele MacKaye (a fun and theatrical Rocco Sisto). He informs us of his dream, and how he has taken the steps towards trying to create something exciting and experimental. Steele, as we later are (secondarily) requested to refer to him by, has the strong willed audacity to attempt to build a 12,000 set spectacular theater for Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. He reminds me of a less-sexualized, more gentlemanly circus ringmaster from the Baz Luhrmann’s fantastical Moulin Rouge. It is this quality, his desire to create something never seen before, that the creators of this unique and intricate play inhabit in their souls. This play carries a lot of the same vision and child-like fun, but sadly the light loses some focus and drive as we move deeper into the shadows of its lovely sad tale.
We meet this exuberant fellow, the could-be lost cousin to Moulin Rouge‘s Harold Zidler in the quietest of fashion (by candle light) but quickly jump to an earlier moment at the beginning to this venture, when he has more spring in his step and certainty of the future. Sharing his enthusiasm and quest for invention, is his loyal electrician, Hillary, played with an utterly charming boyishness and sense of purpose by Erik Lochtefeld (Misery), and his trusted assistant, Hong Sling (a warm, funny, and very appealing Brian Lee Huynh). We are then given the joyous introduction to his loving and lovely wife, Adeline, played with exacting charm by the very sweet Aya Cash (PH’s The Pain and the Itch). They are the most charming of couples that I have seen on stage in a long time. A bit too good to be true, but the kind and adoring words they exchange are warming to behold, and we are instantly smitten by the two, just as Steele is.
In a surprising twist, the play travels forward and than back again to different moments in time. Guided by one of the inventions, the “Silent Unfolding Announcer” (SUA) that tell us when and where we are, we encounter another family at a soon-to-be-revealed symbolic 40 year timeframe later, disconnected but connected to that special and loving electrician. There is a frustrated composer/father, Lou (Ken Barnett), his stressed but loving wife, Ruth, who is surprisingly similar in appearance to the electrician’s wife (but not surprisingly played with a wondrous precision by Cash), and their son, Charlie (a wide-eyed Graydon Peter Yosowitz). This family is a bit more complex than the earlier couple, but they are a part of this kind love story that spans decades and is sweet in its simplicity. It’s also wrapped in cornball charm but also sadly, with an ever expanding sense of pointlessness. The emotionality of these people to each other is etched in real live and engagement, even at the worst of moments, but the over all impact leaves us scratching our communal heads. Bos and Thureen (co-writers of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle and HBO’s High Maintenance) do an impressive job giving us clever loving dialogue and some wonderful engaging characters, but the big picture is a little harder to see.
The production zings and swings us around time and place with a child-like wonder and excitement. The design team (scenic design by Laura Jellinek, costume design by three-time Tony Award nominee Michael Krass, lighting design by Obie Award winner Russell H. Champa, sound design by Lee Kinney and original music by Daniel Kluger) are as inventive and thrilled to challenge the norms of space and form as the ringleader of this venture, Steele MacKaye. But I was hoping that the light would shine a bit more brightly on an over arching raison d’être, other than a gentle love story wrapped in a tribute to a man’s indomitable spirit of invention. The Spectatorium which Steele wants to create sounds magnificent so we keep waiting for astounding, only to get quaint and sweet instead. It’s a lot of sound and fury, signifying, well not nothing, but something not enough.