Haskell King, Jeff Biehl and Michael Louis Serafin-Wells in a scene from
(Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)
It is known that scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) once conducted an experiment in which he put a needle into his tear duct. What is not known is why. Using this fact Lucas Hnath has constructed a fascinating, provocative and intriguing new play attempting to explain the circumstances around this event. The centerpiece of the 2013 First Light festival by Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project, Isaac’s Eye has received a spellbinding production by Linsay Firman. The play makes you understand the working of the minds of scientists in general and geniuses in particular. In addition, Hnath has blown the cobwebs off the historical play which he recasts in a contemporary light.
Hnath takes three risks which pay off beautifully, although they might have backfired: he uses an omniscient narrator, he tells his 17th century story with the actors dressed in contemporary clothing, and he begins his play as a lecture. All of these elements one would probably be told in drama school to avoid; however, here they are part of the play’s charm. Isaac’s Eye begins with a witty chalk and talk discourse delivered by the amiable Jeff Biehl, informing the audience about what facts are true and what events the play will present that are untrue about the career of Newton. He then takes us back to 1666, the year of the Great Plague of London. Biehl’s subsequent narration hints at why Newton’s life took the course that it did and why the legacy of Robert Hooke, Newton’s nemesis, has been forgotten today.
Twenty-five year old Isaac and his friend Catherine, the daughter of the local apothecary, live in Woolsthorpe Manor, in the English countryside where Isaac’s late father had been a farmer. A genius who has thought deeply on many scientific issues even as a boy, Isaac has decided that he will not get anywhere in physics unless he can get into The Royal Society. As Catherine’s father knew Robert Hooke, now the Curator of Experiments for The Royal Society, Isaac asks her to write to Hooke, and he eventually sends him his scientific notes and findings.
This precipitates a crisis for the suspicious and threatened Hooke who has been looking into many of the same questions concerning optics and mechanics. Hooke travels to Woolsthorpe during the Plague to put a stop to his young rival, a visit that becomes a cat and mouse game with the apparent winner continually changing. Eventually Newton will have to decide whether to experiment on himself in order to prove his theory about white light and its separation by refraction in order to put a stop to Hooke’s disparaging disdain.
It is now believed that Newton had Asperger Syndrome and Haskell King successfully plays him this way, uptight, unemotional, intellectual, immature, and single-minded. He helps us understand what it is like to be a scientific genius living exclusively in order to make discoveries without regard to other human needs. Michael Louis Serafin-Wells astutely captures Robert Hooke’s devious, corrupt and mocking nature, making him a man who will do anything to maintain his official standing in the scientific community. He is one of several characters whose delivery always skirts the borderline of irony which is inherent in the situations. The relationship established between King and Serafin-Wells as Newton and Hooke suggests other such classic student/mentor associations that went sour, such as that of Mozart and Salieri and Tesla and Edison.
Kristen Bush’s Catherine, ten years old than Newton, is a woman who understands his needs and how to talk to a man who operates on pure reason alone. She is quite endearing as she awaits a declaration from a man who is incapable of normal human emotions. In the delicate and wily role of the narrator (and later a Dying Man on the road to Woolsthorpe), Biehl is wonderfully confiding as well as deeply sardonic as he both leads us to true facts as well as down the garden path of misinformation. He is both droll and diverting, creating a professorial type who is both with-it and tuned in to today’s idiom.
The minimal scene design with its many blackboards and sparse furnishings is the marvelous work of Nick Francone which puts in a classroom that is also Newton’s home. Suzanne Chesney’s modern but understated costumes are fitting for a play that tells an historic story using a contemporary idiom about characters who would not concern themselves with their dress. The lighting plot by Les Dickert is subtle enough not to be noticeable but always directs attention to the primary vantage point on stage.
Issac’s Eye is a worthy addition to the great plays about scientific discoveries. Lucas Hnath has created a dramatic form which resembles both an experiment as well as an investigation, always with an eye on looking back and at the same time looking forward. His work is admirably complemented by director Linsay Firman who with the help of actors Jeff Biehl, Kristen Bush, Haskell King and Michael Lewis Serafin-Wells turns what might have been a dull lecture into a riveting and ingenious piece of original theater. The play makes you want to rush out and set up experiments to make discoveries of your own.
Isaac’s Eye (through February 24)
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/134