Galileo, Darwin, and Freud make cameos in Tina Landau’s dramatic collage Space, though the piece’s increasingly mushy tone would no doubt offend the illustrious trio’s rigorously scientific sensibilities. Better to cast the three in a jaunty musical—Rockette-style leg kicks might seem less demeaning to their revolutionary ideas than Landau’s New Age-inflected psychobabble.
The story revolves around the sudden transformation of Dr. Allan Saunders (Tom Irwin), a celebrated neuroscientist beset by a group of people who claim to have been abducted by space aliens. As ludicrous as the individual stories sound, Saunders can’t help wondering if there’s more to life than his ironclad rationalism can explain. But it’s not until he falls in love with Dr. Bernadette Jump Cannon (Amy Morton), a seriously ill SETI researcher, that his more conventional paradigms give way to an amorous lesson profoundly indebted to The Twilight Zone.
Briskly staged by Landau, the production is notable for its captivatingly understated design and ambitious thematic scope. There’s a fluent theatrical imagination at work, though the writing founders on its own earnest intentions. Forsaking careful character development for meteoric epiphanies, Landau never convincingly depicts the breakdown of Saunders’s healthy skepticism. What starts off as a journey in shifting epistemologies turns quickly into a familiar treatise on the perils of intimacy—albeit one with an ethereal soundtrack sung by a Martian dressed in a wedding gown (Theresa McCarthy).
Irwin portrays Saunders as a self-dramatizing basket case. While endearing, his antic characterization often seems at odds with the empirical mind-set one would expect from a renowned professor. As a woman devoted to studying the inexplicable “music of the spheres,” Morton provides the emotional ballast in the lightweight human saga. Nearly everything else in Landau’s free-floating universe seems immune to gravity, earthly or otherwise.
** The paranormal presences in Elena Penga’s Gorky’s Wife are ghosts, not aliens—the effacing of the past being the Greek-born playwright’s chief preoccupation. Set in Los Angeles—the sprawling modern symbol of “the total absence of history”—the play bafflingly sets up an encounter between Veronica (Gita Srinivasan), an illegal immigrant from a war-torn Balkan country, and the lost souls of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (Peter J. Coriaty) and his eternally pregnant wife Rotha (Rebecca Wisocky). Along for the ghoulish ride are Veronica’s male friends Ben (Michael DiGioia), a frustrated gay opera singer, and Leo (John Clancy), a sensitive photographer down on his luck. The five decide to meet up at Gorky’s, a defunct old pub that no doubt went out of business for having a name with no apparent Hollywood connection.
While everyone is languishing in a state of exile, it’s anyone’s guess what the characters—either living or dead—are after. What’s meant to be elliptical and highly stylized comes across as merely opaque and underwritten. Worse, the actors are forced to play idiosyncratic poses and gestures rather than actual human figures.
Penga, who’s been successfully produced in Greece, clearly has an innovative voice, though her American premiere is far too inchoate. Contributing to the haziness is director Julia Lee Barclay’s difficulty in establishing a consistent performance idiom. Though the mood is generally clamorous, it’s in those rare understated moments when the sound of history can be heard blowing through the forgotten bar.