In Caryl Churchill’s mordant, harrowing 1984 play Softcops, a penal reformer displays the corpse of an executed criminal. “There is a balance if I can get it,” he says, observing the body. “Terror, but also information. Information, but also terror.” Churchill, perhaps our greatest living playwright, is very good on terror — look to the ghoulies of The Skriker, the total war of Far Away, the sneaking dread of A Number.
But in her new play, imported from London’s Royal Court by New York Theatre Workshop, Churchill replaces terror with gentler stuff. Or does she? Splendid and shockingly contemporary, Love and Information consists of seven blocks of seven scenes each, plus a few more. Churchill insists that the blocks should appear sequentially, though the scenes within them can be played in any order the director chooses, injecting uncertainty into the mathematical precision.
Every scene has a title — “Mother,” “Torture,” “Facts,” “Fate” — but no character names and nothing to disclose tone or setting. James Macdonald, who also directed the London debut, particularizes each with precise props and costuming, just enough to suggest an office, a squash court, a café terrace. A blackout and a loud burst of sound transition us from one situation to the next. The dialogue is subtle, supple, and flexible. Fifteen actors play more than 100 characters, and the ablest ones, like Karen Kandel, manage to convey a wealth of temperament in just a few lines.
Broadly, Churchill has assigned herself the subject of knowledge — how we gain it, how we employ it, how we lack it, how we lose it. She suggests that while we have never had access to more information, we remain hopelessly unknowing, doomed to Socratic aporia no matter how often we hit Google. The more we know, the less we understand.
In the first scene, set here between two lovers, the woman resists telling the man a secret.
“It’s too awful,” she says. “I can’t.”
“But tell me,” he insists. “Because if you don’t there’s this secret between us.”
Finally she relents and whispers in his ear. At first he seems amused, then incredulous, then frankly horrified. “Now what? Now what? Now what?” he cries as the scene closes.
A little learning, it seems, is a dangerous thing. So is a lot. Knowledge is acquired variously and imperfectly via gossip, instinct, research, guesswork, revelation, Facebook. And every fact and figure is subject to error.
In Macdonald’s deft staging, many of the scenes have a glinting comedy. But as the evening hurries on, that familiar terror returns, particularly in episodes that point to the limits and fallibility of cognition. In one scene, a man, seemingly suffering from Capgras delusion, fails to recognize his wife. “If we made love you’d know it was me,” she begs. He recoils from her: “You disgust me. You frighten me. What are you?”
In the final scene, set in a room filled with quiz show hopefuls, a man obliges a woman by testing her knowledge. “Where would you see a huish? How many diamonds were mined in 1957?” And then he asks, “Do you love me?” She shushes him. Then, just a moment later, she smiles almost imperceptibly and says, “I do yes I do.” Is this a statement of certainty, of an emotive force that trumps mere data? Or is it just one more piece of trivia?