Review by Tulis McCall
March 14, 2017
The Columbian Exposition in 1893 featured the debut of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit Gum, Josephine Cochrane's Dish Washing Machine (later known as the Kitchen Aide Brand), Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and the infant version of our modern day zipper. One item that didn't make it to full fledged stardom was the Spectorium, a conception of Steele MacKaye (Rocco Sisto) - a playwright, theatre manager and inventor. This was to be a six-story palace that sat 12,000 people and would feature a lighting spectacle, known here as the Mooncart. Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld), and his assistant Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh) are the two geniuses who are bringing this miracle to life - one electrical explosion at a time. Hillary is a progressive man married to a modern woman Adeline (Aya Cash) who is starting her own business as an entrepreneur selling imported tea brands, and who - most daring of all - rides a bicycle (This means she would be in public with something between her legs which would mean she would be admitting that she HAD legs. An idea frowned upon in 1893.)
Our long and uneventful story begins here, and it soon transfers to 1933 Chicago World's Fair (Miracle Whip was featured at this one as was the Graf Zeppelin). Ms. Cash does couple duty as Ruth, the new tenant of the house that Hillary and Adeline shared. Her husband Lou (Ken Barnett), writes advertising jingles and is thus a well dressed beggar who is wasting his considerable talent. Barnett plays a mean piano with elegance and style. Last up is their son Charlie, (Graydon Peter Yosowitz) whose purpose eludes us. His character adds nothing to the story, and uses the Moon Cart (left behind when Hillary left) as his own private sleeping nook.
Actually, Hillary did not so much move out as moved upstairs. Into the attic to be precise after a dreadful tragedy. Hillary remains in the attic collecting the rent. Go figure.... Hong Sling moves in as the tenant and stays for 40 years. It is he who is exiting when Ruth enters, and it is he who sees the similarities between Ruth and Adeline. The similarities are physical only as Ruth's go getting skills are limited to getting a day-job at the Fair selling pancakes while Lou racks up a string of failed auditions. This family, like the one 40 years ago, is destined for an unhappy ending.
There is little else that connects them except for their dwelling, their connections to the two World's Fairs that take up real estate in Chicago, oh and that damn Moon Cart that never gives up its spot upstage center. Mr. MacKaye is a mystery as well, speaking in illusions and grand metaphors. His dream of recreating Columbus's adventures on the high seas remains unborn, and his Spectrum unfinished. The rain will pour in through the dome, and the building will be dismantled and sold for scrap.
All in all it is a sad few decades for the Windy City.
This is a well intentioned piece, but it is missing the "WHY" that is the required center of every story ever told. We do learn a tremendous amount about the years represented here - customs and economy and inventions. We learn about the history of special effects for the theatre. We even learn about stars - specifically Arcturus, known by everyone from prehistoric Polynesian navigators to Columbus and the 19th century Chicago citizens. But facts do not a story make. Not even close. What we don't learn about are these characters. They are like so much set dressing who take their place among the lights and spectacles on the stage. The dialogue is bland and disconnected. They speak, but their words don't connect. And the majority of the cast has not been directed or guided into performances that overcome the script. These characters never step out of two dimensions and into the world of living, breathing beings. We leave the theatre filled with fascinating anecdotes. Our hunger for humanity, however, remains unsatisfied.
"The Debate Society’s leisurely and copiously detailed contemplation of the quest for illumination... You respect the avid curiosity of the show’s creators, but their interests don’t translate into infectious passion."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"While The Light Years is ultimately tenuous in its dramatic circuitry, it gives off ample luminosity, powered by whimsy and wonder."
David Cote for Time Out New York
"There’s plenty of wattage but little illumination in the latest groupthink by The Debate Society, the theater collective that spent seven years making “The Light Years,” which tells twin stories of dashed dreams set in Chicago’s World Fairs in 1893 and 1933. But the time-bouncing tale, now at Playwrights Horizons, fall far short of the historic, personal and cosmic connections the show’s creators are so clearly after. It’s a muddle of thinly realized notions, wrapped in a quirky sensibility that estranges rather than endears."
Frank Rizzo for Variety
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