I’ll be honest, The Long and the Short of Long Term Memory by Cecil Castellucci is not my favorite play in the Geek Theater collection.
Like most of the other plays in the collection, I read this one twice. Unlike the others, including Castellucci’s own Rapunzel’s Haircut, the script of this highly cerebral but somewhat flat play failed to capture my imagination.
Based on her short story of the same name, Castellucci’s play version of The Long and the Short of Long Term Memory follows two neuroscientists in the future, professor Dunbar and his graduate student Heidi, as they attempt to develop a drug to enhance memory. We are deep in Flowers for Algernon territory here, confronting big questions of whether the human mental capacity should be enhanced by science and what those enhancements might mean. Mixed in with this are a collection of story and stylistic elements that never quite come together for me.
The tone of the play is kind of cleaved in half, one part leaning on dry lectures about building neural pathways and the other tending towards existentially charged dialogue. Dunbar is actually only working on memory enhancement because he wants to learn how to suppress memories – particularly one of his own painful memories of a former lover who died in an accident at a resort on the Moon. When he and Heidi agree to work on the project together he says, “What you do with remembering will help me with forgetting.” Somewhat on the nose but poetic nonetheless.
Castellucci also does a bang up job of establishing the relationship between Dunbar and Heidi right away. During one of Dunbar’s lectures about the way certain experiments on snails can inform our understanding of long term memory, Heidi raises her hand repeatedly. This is how we meet the plucky Heidi, who will prove to be an able intellectual foil for Dunbar. He makes a statement, she raises her hand. He makes another, she raises it again. She raises her hand after literally every sentence in his monologue, at the end of which she finally says, “I have a few questions.”
Playwrights, filmmakers, novelists, and storytellers in other mediums consistently trip over their feet when it comes to introducing characters in interesting and useful ways. There is not a lot of stage time in this play and Heidi only gets a fraction of it. In this short but funny sequence, Castellucci also deftly illustrates a lot about Heidi’s character – we know before she even opens her mouth that she’s motivated, not afraid to engage authority, and persistent.
So, I didn’t love this one, but in the ten years I have been reviewing theater in New York, I have learned that every play has a reason to exist. Even a play that doesn’t sit well with a viewer overall could feature a spectacular performance. Or one really good scene. Or one good line. Or even one well-timed lighting cue that really works. Here, I feel like the tremendous little piece of stagecraft with the hand raising sells the whole thing.
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