You probably don’t picture your college philosophy professor pacing his office in an oversize metallic helmet trying to commune with the dead. But that’s what becomes of Lee Krebs, the schlubby hero of Bob Jude Ferrante’s A New Theory of Vision (produced by Sanctuary Playwrights Theatre), a play in which Stoppardian banter meets William Gibson mindfuck. A specialist in 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley (who questioned human perceptions of reality), Lee teams up with an eccentric student, the Asperger-afflicted Eric, who introduces him to that more modern science of epistemology: virtual reality. In his digital head-trips, Lee first resurrects old Berkeley himself, then his dead girlfriend—whose suicide he continually re-enacts, possibly under the manipulation of Eric, an electronic puppetmaster.
Ferrante’s quirkily bookish writing is as ambitious as Jonathan Ashley’s impressive video designs for the VR sequences. But his deadpan satire of academia plays better than the pedestrian tragic love story that ultimately derails the plot. Sluggish direction by Cat Parker only highlights the script’s weaknesses—although Matt Steiner gives Eric a geeky intensity that’s alternately endearing and creepy. The play thrives much more in the virtual reality of his “diseased” mind than in the more mundane life of the professor’s humdrum heart.