Chicago Theater Review: ISAAC’S EYE (Writers Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 12, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Lucas Hnath is a curious writer who likes to pit truth against fantasy to see which captures the most actuality. His Isaac’s Eye, now in an enthralling Midwest premiere at Writers Theatre, plays fast and loose with the facts behind two seminal 17th century scientists, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton (what is true about them gets written on a blackboard by narrator LaShawn Banks; what’s fabricated by the author happens on stage.) Hnath contrasts these treacherously competitive, arrogantly ambitious physicists with ordinary people whose priorities seem by play’s end to be vastly more human and admirable.

Jürgen Hooper (Isaac Newton) and Elizabeth Ledo (Catherine) in ISAAC'S EYE at Writers Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.We wonder yet again at the price that little people pay for the progress of great ones. And director Michael Halberstam is great at making wonder worth the while.

Hooke and Newton deserve each other. Worse, ethically speaking, they cancel each other out. As Banks’ tour guide exposes him, Hooke (a sardonic, deadpanning Marc Grapey) is a womanizing, drug-taking, intellectual control freak. Deeply protective of his eminence at the Royal Society, he’s suspicious of the stories Newton tells to illustrate his insights. (Besides his work at showing that light carries colors because his prism discloses its spectrum, Newton also relates how he stuck a needle into the tear duct of his eye to see if colors change or are integral to the light that hits the cornea.) Hooke, his seeming nemesis, is no scientific lightweight, having established the basic principles or assumptions behind combustion, petrification, architecture, meteorology, evolution, calculus, and the telephone, microscope, and telescope. (No humane researcher, he is willing to blow up the lungs of a dozen dogs to discover the limits of vital capacity.)

Marc Grapey (Robert Hooke) and Jürgen Hooper (Isaac Newton) and in ISAAC'S EYE at Writers Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Capriciously violent and indelibly narcissistic, Newton (Jürgen Hooper, most devious when he seems innocent) is a goofy country lad who craves greatness at any price, including blackmailing Hooke when he discovers a secret scandal. He wants to see what’s not there–to the point where honesty is not his best policy. Monomaniacally convinced that God speaks through his investigations, Newton’s Machiavellian truth-seeking hardly forbids him from telling lies; but in later years, when he is President of the Royal Society, it makes him destroy Hooke’s manuscripts and even portraits in order to enhance his own reputation. As Hnath depicts him, this strangely serious soul is a child-like savant–a mischievous Mozart to Hooke’s worldly wise, envious, and suspicious Salieri. Above all, Newton totally lacks, well, gravity. And his right eye plays a very pivotal part in this grungy drama.

But it’s the human context that indicts these relentless egos. Both tyros are all too hard on the other two characters. Along with the affable narrator, Banks also plays a dying man named Sam. This peasant’s sheer desperation and looming death are separately exploited by both luminaries–though Hooke’s ugly attempt to assist this sick creature is ultimately less horrific than Newton’s designs on poor, trusting Sam.

Jürgen Hooper (Isaac Newton), LaShawn Banks (ActorDying Man) and Marc Grapey (Robert Hooke) in ISAAC'S EYE at Writers Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The other symbolic victim is Catherine Stover (no-nonsense Elizabeth Ledo, a reality principle for any play). Newton’s small town girlfriend and prospective fiancée just wants to be loved and to have kids. But these simple desires fly in the face of Newton’s hubris. An equal-opportunity casualty, she becomes a cat’s-paw for Hooke’s machinations as he seeks to seduce her in his own blackmail, scheming to denounce Newton as a blaspheming hypocrite. Whatever second-act victory Catherine achieves here is very satisfactory indeed.

LaShawn Banks (ActorDying Man) and Marc Grapey (Robert Hooke) in ISAAC'S EYE at Writers Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The trenchant playwright cunningly contrasts these amoral seekers of truth with the real-life people they hurt. Hnath makes this showdown contemporary: His vernacular to scatological dialogue delivers many shocks of recognition. Hnath eschews adverbs and adjectives, preferring a text message-like directness and deliberateness. (The almost child-like talk is strictly subject-verb-object throughout, sometimes verging on A.I.-robotic.) As playful as it is precious, it makes this two-hour actors’ exercise flow swiftly and hit hard. Ably aided by Halberstam’s even-handed, very grounded staging, with its four rooted and revelatory performances, Isaac’s Eye cleverly manipulates an audience’s allegiances, shifting loyalties from Hooke to Newton until finally the only characters we care about are not them. For all its blunt and glib cockiness, Isaac’s Eye is that rarity–thinking theater with a huge heart.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Isaac’s Eye
Writers Theatre
Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave in Glencoe
Tues & Wed at 7:30; Thurs & Fri at 8;
Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2 & 6 (select Wed matinees at 2)
ends on December 7, 2014
EXTENDED to December 21, 2014
for tickets, call 847-242-6000 or visit Writers Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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