Sunday, February 10, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Isaac's Eye

L-R: Haskell King, Jeff Biehl, and Michael Louis Serafin-Wells in ISAAC'S EYE.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein
In Isaac’s Eye, now having its premiere at The Ensemble Studio Theatre on West 52nd Street, the very talented playwright, Lucas Hnath plays fast and loose with the facts of Isaac Newton’s life as we know them.  Yet none of this is to suggest that he has attempted in any way to mislead his audience..  On the contrary, he is scrupulously honest in letting us know just what in his play is true, “really for real,” and what is not.  And Hnath’s writing is so lyrical that we should be grateful for the poetic license he has taken.

There are a lot of things that we know about Isaac Newton (Haskell King) and much that we know about Robert Hooke (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells) and Catherine Storer (Kristen Bush) as well.  (And there is much that we know about the times in which they lived – for instance that there was a plague in England in 1665-1666.)  But there is even more that we don’t really know about any of them, at least not with any degree of certainty.

We know, for instance, that Newton once threatened to burn down his parent’s house; that he once bashed another kid’s head into a wall; that he believed that light consisted of particles; that he once wrote verses on Catherine’s attic wall and that, late in life, he tried to buy her family’s house; that he disliked Robert Hooke intensely; that his work on optics got him into the prestigious Royal Society; that he believed that God guided his thoughts; that he re-wrote the Bible; that he never married; and that he once put a needle into his tear duct.  And we know that Hooke was himself a scientist of the first rank; that he founded the field of meteorology; that he discovered cells; that he was one of the first people to ever study fossils; that he explained elasticity (which explanation is now known as “Hooke’s Law”); that he believed that light consisted of waves; that he repeatedly experimented on dogs by exploding their lungs; that he had an affair with his niece; that he did a lot of drugs; that he slept with a number of housemaids and recorded his ejaculations in his sex diary; and that he disliked Newton as much as Newton disliked him.

But there is so much more that we don’t know.  We don’t know, for instance, whether Newton really was in love with Catherine; we don’t know whether Hooke ever even met her; and we don’t even know why Newton put a needle into his tear duct in the first place.  But all those things that we don’t know didn’t prevent Hnath from creating a narrative based upon what we do know and that narrative, Isaac’s Eye, provides us with an insight into the “true” nature of man (even where the details may be a figment of the playwright’s imagination).

In effect, Hnath has confronted us with the question of whether “truth” is nothing more than correspondence to reality or whether there is a larger “truth” - some way in which we might integrate and contextualize those mundane factoids that we take to be “truths” in our day-to-day affairs, such that a figuratively true, even if not literally true, narrative might still emerge.

Kristen Bush in ISAAC'S EYE.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
In addition to King, Serafin-Wells, and Bush, the only other actor in the play is Jeff Biehl who plays the dual roles of a narrator and of a man dying of the plague.  All four actors are absolutely superb in their respective roles.  King is terrific as the young, arrogant, brilliant, narcissistic, and emotionally immature Isaac Newton, intent on becoming a member of the Royal Society.  Serafin-Wells is equally impressive as the older, drug and sex addicted Robert Hooke who is brilliant, arrogant and narcissistic in his own right, but who now is threatened by this new young upstart.   Bush is delightful as Catherine Storer, the conventional daughter of an apothecary, much taken with Isaac but eager to marry and raise a family.  And Biehl is splendid in both of his roles, as narrator and dying man.  Finally, the play’s director, Linsay Firman, deserves special praise for having managed to stage such a successful production in Ensemble Studio Theatre’s very challenging and not very accommodating space.

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