Saturday, February 9, 2013


Ensemble Studio Theatre & The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
Present the World Premiere of
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Linsay Firman

Kristen Bush as Catherine and Haskell King as Isaac Newton
Photo by Jerry Goodstin

The acting is excellent. The show is funny and well written. I enjoyed the show.

I enjoyed the show, but I did not like the play.  The story is fundamentally dishonest, and not in a good way.

In Isaac’s Eye, a young Isaac Newton (portrayed as a young, shallow, hyper, vain, lying blackmailer with really stupid ideas about scientific experimentation), is close friends with an older, attractive and friendly woman. Through her connections he meets the established scientist, Robert Hooke, (portrayed as a shallow, sex-obsessed, dog killing, vain blackmailer) for the purpose of obtaining membership in the Royal Society and a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.  That this meeting never happened (and the play is upfront about the fact that this never happened) is not the problem. (Note…Copenhagen, about Heisenberg & Bohr, is a dramatic, invented description of encounters between two physicists and it is terrific.)

The problem is that all the true facts about Newton are trivial and incidental to the dramatic action of the play, and the rest is not just fictional, but seems to represent Newton in a fundamentally false way. It seems to be inaccurate in its details and completely wrong in its spirit.

The “Newton” of the play is a fool and a bully and a liar, all of whose early ideas were discovered earlier by others, who believes his ideas are true because they come from God, and who resorts to blackmail to try to become famous. And the one idea in physics pursued in the play is an idea which is not true and which Newton finally investigates with a preposterous (fictional) “experiment”. 

The play does not “suspend disbelief” it generates disbelief.

There is no interpretation, and apparently no understanding, in the play of how genius works when it is solving real mathematical and scientific problems. The play presents a libelous fiction… as if that contributes to understanding the nature of mathematical and scientific and intellectual research.

Note: The play more or less completely ignores all the brilliant and profound work that we identify with Newton, including the most important principle that Newton articulated: namely that a body in uniform motion remains in uniform motion unless acted on by a force.  Aristotelian physics, previously, had always insisted that a body always tends to come to its “natural” state: rest.  That forces are responsible -- and necessary -- for the changes in motion of an object is the fundamental discovery that provides the portal from ancient science to modern science. (To be fair, this discovery comes after the period depicted in the play. However, it is difficult to see any way that the character of Newton in this play could become the genius whose scientific work provided the foundation for virtually all the scientific developments that followed. And, without connecting the character in the play with the fundamental work of the real Newton, the real Newton is unrecognizable in the “Newton” of the play.)

This kind of misrepresentation of history, science, research, mathematics, genius and inspiration is not a valuable contribution to literature. Nor is there any recognition of the fundamental values of science: honesty, and a sincere, honest search for an understanding of nature.

The “Newton” of the play looks a bit like Steve Jobs and talks a bit like Jesse Eisenberg playing Mark Zuckerberg.  (The characterization is probably intended to suggest that Newton had Asperger’s syndrome or something like that – which may be true – and to suggest Newton’s genius by evoking these familiar figures – but the real Newton was a great genius of a completely different order.) 
The play is very simply staged, aggressively modern and American in style and language, and it makes no effort to find anything of the late 1600’s British spirit in the characters, nor does it find something in the American, modern spirit to replace it.

To better understand the action of the play, we’ll use made-up names in a summary of the plot:
 Isaac’s Eye is a play about two men, one of whom (“Izzy”) is a liar, and the other (“Hank”) a womanizer who seduced his niece – a treachery that would kill the girl’s father if he found out.
  • The first man, Izzy (we’ll call him “Izzy” in this plot summary… and we’ll call his woman friend “Cathy”) asks the other (we’ll call him “Hank”) to get for him a prestigious scientific position.
  • Hank, afraid Izzy will upstage him scientifically, (and with some real doubts about his work) refuses. 
  • Discovering Hank’s sexual adventures, Izzy blackmails Hank to obtain a promise of the position.
  • Then Hank, on discovering that Izzy has broken up with Cathy, flirts with her, and Hank and Cathy swing from mutual hatred to a marriage proposal in one short scene.
  • Cathy tells Hank about material he can use to counter-blackmail Izzy.
  • Then, Cathy discovers Izzy stuck in a chair with a needle in his eye from which he has been unable to move, eat or drink for several weeks (sic).
  • Izzy, thinking he is ruined anyway, renounces science and proposes to Cathy offering to be a farmer. 
  • She accepts, and agrees to burn the information she had provided Hank for counter-blackmailing Izzy.
  • But when Izzy makes some remarks suggesting less than an ironclad conviction to become a farmer, she leaves him once and for all, and leaves the other guy too.
This is complete fiction, nonsense, and a ridiculous and shabby plot; ascribing it to real people just makes it worse, but calling them Newton and Hooke is an outrage.

Calling the characters “Newton” and “Hooke” does not make this a play about those scientists.  (As Lincoln is said to have said, “If you call a pig’s tail a leg, how many legs does a pig have? Answer, it has four: Calling a pig’s tail a leg does not make it one.”)

Anyone who thought this play was about two important scientists has been, I’m afraid, hoodwinked...

Giving these despicable characters heft by calling them by the names of famous scientists is a literary/dramatic version of identity theft.
Notes and links...

Featuring Jeff Biehl+, Kristen Bush*+, Haskell King*+ & Michael Louis Serafin-Wells*+

*denotes EST Member
+denotes Equity Member.
All actors appear courtesy of Actors' Equity Association.

 FROM EST: "As an experiment, young Isaac Newton inserted a long needle "between my eye and the bone, as near to the backside of my eye as I could." Why take such a risk? A comic exploration of how a rural farm boy in contentious, plague-ridden England willed himself to become one of the greatest thinkers in modern science."

Tickets: $30 | Student/Senior: $20
Runs: Wednesdays - Sundays @ 7pm
Pick Your Price Matinees: Saturdays & Sundays @ 2pm  








No comments: