Review: “Isaac’s Eye” at The Custom Made Theatre Co.

San Franciscan theatergoers have a unique opportunity right now: Lucas Hnath, a major up-and-coming playwright whose first play premiered in just 2012 and will make his Broadway debut this spring, has not one but two productions of his plays running right now, both playing until March 11th. The Christians at the San Francisco Playhouse, which I reviewed here, is an absolutely first-rate night of theatre, both in play and production, and if Isaac’s Eye, which is currently running at the Custom Made Theatre Co. (just a block away), isn’t quite as good, one should not be discouraged in the slightest from going to see it, both as a highly interesting and entertaining night of theatre and as a perfect way to gain an introduction to a playwright who, this reviewer truly believes, will eventually be considered one of the most important voices of his generation.

Isaac’s Eye‘s titular character is none other than Isaac Newton, here portrayed at a very young age, before he became arguably the most well-known scientist in human history. The almost entirely fictional play deals with Isaac’s attempts to join the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge in order to reverse his financial prospects and become a respected scientist in British society by way of writing to one Robert Hooke, who has since disappeared from most history books but was the premiere scientist of his day, to make his case. Isaac has sent Hooke his work for consideration, and it appears that the two are writing similar things about similar topics, though they diverge on whether light is a particle or a wave, which incites Hooke to visit Isaac and his partner-but-not-wife Catherine. What follows is a duel between two great minds wrapped in horrifically selfish personalities, who are willing to do whatever they can to get what they want (namely, to prove that the other party is wrong about his view on light, but also life) no matter what the human cost, and does the human cost ever run up the tally.

If this sounds like a stuffy period melodrama, don’t be fooled. A true post-modernist, Hnath writes his plays in staggeringly modern vernacular and conceives most of his works within a sort of metatheatricality. With The Christians, the whole play is designed as a church sermon, complete with a choir and actors speaking into handheld microphones and sitting in chairs while not saying their lines. With A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, the four actors are presented as constantly reading a screenplay, never leaving their seated positions at a folding table. With Isaac’s Eye, the play is produced as a sort-of lecture, taught by a man only referred to as the Actor, who frames the work as a story within his lecture, dictates the stage directions and imaginary set designs, and writes whatever truths lie within the mostly fictional play on white boards that surround the action.

This may sound like a gimmick, but Hnath uses these constructs both as a way of forcing an intellectual engagement with his plays by the audience to create complex systems of argumentation that don’t need a strictly “human” grounding aspect, and as a way of communicating that all lives cannot be lived alone: eventually we are all a character in someone else’s story. Hnath would very rapidly develop this first quality by the time his next play, Red Speedo, was written, but he hadn’t quite figured out the intricacies of writing a perfectly balanced intellectual morality play when Isaac’s Eye premiered, which does feature an intriguing and complex relationship between Isaac and Catherine, who spend a great deal of their stage time enveloped in one of Hnath’s magnificently orchestrated arguments, in which both sides are extremely well-reasoned in their positions and challenge the audience’s ethical decision making capabilities. However, the character of Robert Hooke is unfortunately reduced to the role of villain in the piece, and despite Hnath making a compelling argument for Isaac needing someone to be an antagonist to his protagonist, the character is never sufficiently drawn-out to make his plight sympathetic to the audience, which causes the drama to lose its intellectual edge and thus, its raison d’être. The piece is also far too long, running a drawn-out two hours and fifteen minutes with an intermission, when clearly a 90-minute one act would be a stronger base for Hnath’s immensely sparse writing style (a note which he has apparently taken to heart—all of his subsequent works are no longer than 90 minutes).

That being said, the play holds the attention very well, and his usage of the second advantage of his meta construct—”a way of communicating that all lives cannot be lived alone”—is magnificent. For all its trappings of science and religion and interpersonal communication, Isaac’s Eye is really about the impossibility of achieving greatness and goodness in the same lifetime, culminating in a finale of almost stunning beauty about the sacrifices one makes for greatness. Think of a more muscular version of Sunday in the Park With George with less sentimental twaddle and you’re on the right track.

If all this intrigues you—and it should—the current San Francisco production of Isaac’s Eye is perhaps misguided, but makes a strong case for the work. Read on the page, Hnath’s play, which is mostly written in blank verse, has a sort of barren quality to it, giving it a quiet intensity (the key word here being “quiet”). Seemingly ignoring Hnath’s instructions to “play the play briskly and with a light touch”, director Oren Stevens choses to direct his cast to perform the play very emphatically, with raised voices being the go-to decision for most line deliveries. This diminishes the play, as well as seeming to be rather unnecessary in Custom Made’s tiny 99-seat theatre, where the audience could easily hear an un-mic’d whisper, but works on its own terms on certain occasions, most notably with Jeunée Simon, who plays Catherine with unassuming honesty and a remarkably true sense of perpetual heartbreak. Adam Niemann is excellent as the Actor, delivering the play’s climactic monologue as well as anyone could ever hope to, though his performance-within-the-performance as an impoverished black plague-carrier borders on unnecessary cartoonishness. Robin Gabrielli is believably masculine as Robert Hooke, and if Gabriel A. Ross as Isaac suffers the most from Stevens’s over-direction, at least he makes the character dislikable in an interesting fashion. Sarah Phykitt’s set, Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting, and Lindsey Eiffert’s costumes are uninteresting by necessity, but are perfectly executed for their intentions.

It’s a treat to savor to be able to go see both this play and The Christians on the same day. Only one of them is all-time great, but Isaac’s Eye is still a notable and highly engaging evening of theatre. Now if only some local company could produce A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney. Perhaps next season?

Isaac’s Eye is playing at the Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco through March 11. Tickets and information available here.

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