REVIEW: THE LIGHT YEARS BY THE DEBATE SOCIETY

He opened the doors to all three stalls in the bathroom.

But let me back up a minute.

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The Light Years at Playwrights Horizons marks the proper Off-Broadway arrival of The Debate Society, a theater company close to my heart, who, after a decade of lush detail-oriented theatrics, deeply nuanced storytelling and consistently warm critical receptions in theaters downtown, have “made good,” as it were, in a legit uptown house. (You can read a previous deep dive into their work here.) And it is easy to vibe on the apparent delight of the three central “Debaters” – playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and developer/director Oliver Butler – who are at last able to fully stretch out their legs in terms of budget and magnitude.  In fact, they’ve stretched all the way into the restrooms.

It was in the men’s room that Playwrights Horizons, like a well-heeled suitor seeking my blessing to court my favorite younger sister, proved to me that they were a worthy host for the Society’s off-beat sensibility. Playwrights Horizons has humored the company – or perhaps simply cheered them on – by dropping different historical factoids about World’s Fairs and other momentous exhibitions relevant to the theme of the show into the fancy placards mounted above each of the urinals and inside the stalls. It also became obvious in the men’s room that the downtown theatergoers who, like me, love the Debate Society and their fastidious aesthetic have dutifully followed them uptown.

This became obvious to me because after the guy at the urinal next to me finished peeing, he opened the doors to all three stalls in the bathroom to make sure he read the stuff on every one of the placards.

As in the bathrooms, so it goes onstage in The Light Years. Like with previous Debate Society stories, there is much to see and absorb in Director Butler’s rich production. Laura Jellinek’s adventurous scenic design has become a staple of the Society’s presentations, but it is something to behold to see this one – an unprecedented, multi-level masterpiece – so splendidly augmented by frequent pyrotechnics, perfectly warbly sound design from Lee Kinney and breathtaking lighting features from designer Russell H. Champa. And when I say breathtaking I don’t exclusively mean grand and complex – Director Butler and designer Champa also clearly comprehend the simple power of having a single candle act as light source in a massive theater. I really don’t want to make this whole write up about the company’s transition to a bigger space, but the live flame takes on a different significance to me as someone who has produced theater in New York and understands that NYC fire codes often make it too costly to so much as strike a match onstage. The fact that The Light Years begins with 19th Century theater impresario Steele MacKaye holding the darkness of the theater at bay with a single ignited candle registered like a flag in the ground for the Society; a new territory hard fought and claimed.

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And territories are just about everything in the Debate Society’s storytelling cannon – across the board, their works explore vividly drawn locations and the strange meanings that people have poured into them. A recently renovated basement in Blood Play; a snow chalet and hot tub acquired as part of a bitter divorce in Jacuzzi. The principle location in The Light Years is Mackaye’s ambitious Spectatorium, a real life state-of-the-art theater that was designed and put into construction for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The “years” in the title refer to the four decade interval between the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, because the other thing that’s just about everything for the Society is time. (See also: the summertime Christmas in Buddy Cop 2.) Bos, Thureen and Butler build a nice conceptual framework for this around the idea that light leaving the star Arcturus in 1893 would take about forty years to reach Earth, which is, in turn, reflected splendidly by a lightbulb star field above the stage that ignites a trail of light across the top proscenium to a glowing representation of Earth each time we shift between time periods.

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 The 1893 section follows the gregarious MacKaye’s efforts to complete construction of his massive Spectatorium, zeroing in on the activities of his overworked master electrician, Hillary, and Hillary’s wife, Adeline. In 1933, a new family has moved into Hillary and Adeline’s home to try to find work at the new World’s Fair in the midst of the Great Depression. The husband Lou is a jingle writer trying to land a big client, his wife Ruth is trying to land a job at one of the stalls to pay the bills, while the scientific wonders of the fair have lifted the spirits of their young son Charlie.

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As MacKaye, Rocco Sisto charmingly negotiates the area between single-minded obsession and outright madness. Aya Cash plays both the genteel Adeline and the more working class Ruth, clearly rendering each woman with a distinct emotional makeup and set of ambitions. Adeline has tragedy in her future, foretold in the frequent bursts of electricity throughout the play, but she a tireless optimist to the point of eccentricity. Her light at the end of the tunnel is a bicycle she had won for selling tea and her downtrodden reaction when Hillary tells her that the bicycle cannot sleep in the bed with them is priceless.

In addition to his clear admiration of MacKaye and awe of the Spectatorium project, Erik Locktefeld, as Hillary, creates very specific and textured relationships with Ms. Cash and Brian Lee Huyn, who plays his electrical assistant Hong Sling. The long friendship between Hillary and Hong, very deftly played by both men, helps to bridge the two time periods. In the 1933 story, Ken Barnett’s Lou is an often sunny presence, happily crooning out his hilarious pitches for jingles (presumably written by Daniel Kluger) and dusting himself off after each financial failure. As Charlie, the young Graydon Peter Yosowitz more than holds his own with the adult performers, often singing and playing the piano alongside his pop.

Given that Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen often also perform in Society productions, one can easily envision a version of The Light Years with Thureen as Steele MacKaye and Bos in the dual role of Adeline/Ruth, but it was refreshing to see other performers so ably communicate the company’s idiosyncratic voice, which is never more entertaining than in the characters’ folksy, expletive-free swears:

“Muddy Laura!”

“Aw, Gizzards!”

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In both periods the World’s Fair represents an opportunity for something truly great; a chance to leave a mark on history for MacKaye and Hillary, and a chance at escape the poverty for Lou and Ruth. And while the gestalt of the contrasting stories in the two periods is highly effective, the clash in the 1893 portion of MacKaye’s lofty ambitions for a stage epic about Christopher Columbus and the practical reality of Hillary’s endless wiring forms the more potent argument about the infectious power of ambition and the gasping vacuum it leaves when it goes unfulfilled. And boy does it go unfulfilled in both periods.

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It is probably not a spoiler to point out that MacKaye’s Spectatorium was never completed, but that fact does allow the Society to play with one of their favorite leitmotifs – nostalgia for a transformational event that never happened. Like the manmade lake in Cape Disappointment, like the Christmas the sick girl would not see in Buddy Cop 2, the Spectatorium ultimately becomes nothing more than a magnificent specter of unfulfilled potential.

Mr. Butler’s production and Ms. Jellinek’s tremendous scenic design are well also well served by the concept of the Spectatorium, which allows for more than a bit of meta-theatrics. Many scenes take place in the unfinished theater, allowing the characters to move through the house, fiddle around with a ton of gorgeously constructed practical  equipment and even acknowledge the “Silent Unfolding Announcer,” an unspooling message board that displays clever titles for each section.

As we move into the final act of the play, once it is clear the theater will not be completed, we fast forward forty years and the stage, having previously represented Hillary and Adeline’s home only in the abstract, becomes magnificently literal with practical walls, an attic, wallpaper, a stove andi the like. Mr. Huyn’s Hong narrates the sequence, detailing the fate of the characters in the 1893 section and how the 1933 characters eventually came to live in the same house. It is a head-spinning transition, aptly marking the switchover from the high-minded theater of wonder and ideas of Hillary and MacKaye to the very grounded, money-driven Lou and Ruth story.

Dreams and reality are drawn in equally splendid measure in The Light Years. Time and space are bent to craft a world that is delicate, but where it truly feels as though anything is possible.

Aw gizzards, just like my friend from the men’s room, you’ll want to open up every door, peek up in the attic and count every one of the lightbulb stars on the ceiling just to make sure you don’t miss anything.

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The Light Years will play at Playwrights Horizons through April Second. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.thedebatesociety.org/

 

 

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