Playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen with developer Oliver Butler, creatively evoke the tragic, nostalgic spirit of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons and the wonderment of the works of humorist Jean Shepherd. The scenario is engaging and the characters are lovingly rendered.
The material is perfectly realized by Mr. Butler’s vibrant direction. Actors appear on differing playing areas, levels and in the audience. Butler has a firm and inspired command of stagecraft as well as spurring the vigorous performances.
In 1893, we meet the grand actor and impresario, Steele MacKaye. This aged titan of the stage’s goal is to build The Spectatorium, a 12,000-seat theater, where he will present an extravaganza about Christopher Columbus. This will be a highlight of the Chicago World’s Fair.
Assisting MacKaye is the amiable, eccentric and young electrician and inventor, Hillary. His wealthy wife Adeline is loving and spirited. The loyal Hong Sling is a Chinese laborer who works with Hillary.
In the 1933 sequences, there is Lou, a happy-go-lucky, young piano player who writes commercial jingles, his stalwart wife, Ruth, and their 11 year-old son Charlie. It’s The Depression, times are hard, and it is hoped that The World’s Fair will improve the family’s fortunes. There is also Charlie’s excitement about attending it to see the zeppelins and to ride a rocket.
The action shifts back and forth between the two stories, and as time passes, some of the characters from the earlier sections become part of the 1933 portion, as they grow older.
The actual plots are not overly gripping, but are part of the show’s warm fabric of presenting these bygone eras of American life with charm, whimsy and humanity. Harsh realities intrude on idealism.
Though stylized, the performances never devolve into parody. There is energy, vividness and expressiveness reminiscent of early 1930’s Hollywood movies.
With his booming voice, histrionic diction and swaggering physicality, Rocco Sisto is a delight as Steele MacKaye. Mr. Sisto opens the play with a grandiloquent speech that instantly establishes its tone. Sisto’s characterization is magnetic flamboyance laced with poignancy.
Aya Cash offers a display of accomplished versatility in her two roles.
As Adeline, Ms. Cash is forcefully upper class and as Ruth she is snappy.
In both, she wonderfully conveys the sense of each era’s take on womanhood.
Playing the upbeat but emotionally crumbling Lou, who is often at the piano, Ken Barnett winningly alternates between breeziness and melancholy. Mr. Barnett’s sunny delivery, beaming face and soulful eyes perfectly capture the pluckiness and despair of The Depression.
The charmingly solid Erik Lochtefeld is marvelously eccentric as Hillary, the man of science Hillary.
At first, Brian Lee Huynh expertly portrays the taciturn Hong Sling as stereotypical comic relief, and then with low-key depth as he ages. Mr. Huynh’s makes a strong impression in this smaller, but pivotal role.
Graydon Peter Yosowitz’s Charlie is a highly appealing portrait of “Gee whiz” American boyhood.
Weathered looking metal frames surround the stage like an antique picture frame, and the worn red velvet curtain, all instantly emit nostalgia. There is a large representation of a star in the upper left corner of the proscenium that lights up, as do numerous smaller lights around the frame. Laura Jellinek’s fabulous scenic design also has ramps, vintage furnishings and contraptions for the cheery 1890’s, and threadbare surroundings for the grim 1930’s.
Russell H. Champa’s kinetic lighting design is a masterpiece of the celestial and the fanciful. Composer Daniel Kluger’s atmospheric score is beautifully realized by Lee Kinney’s superior sound design, as are the plentiful sound effects.
The dazzling, period costume design by Michael Krass faithfully represents all of the characters.
This is a production of the acclaimed theater company, The Debate Society, which is led by Ms. Bos, Mr. Thureen and Mr. Butler.
Embracing the sensibility, scope and attention to detail of Orson Welles’ films, and no doubt his theater productions, The Light Years is a tender epic.
The Light Years (through April 2, 2017)
The Debate Society
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call tickets, call 212 279 4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission