Recently, my young nephew got in trouble for peeling all the stickers off his scrambled Rubik’s Cube. Yearning to appear clever, but incapable of making the color-blocks line up in the right configuration, he tried to fake mastery by resticking the colored tabs in the correct spots. But they wouldn’t stay in place; all he did was spoil the game. This is the paradox that the British playwright Caryl Churchill tackles in her intricate, moving (in both senses) puzzle of a play, “Love and Information,” which opened Wednesday at the Minetta Lane (a production of New York Theatre Workshop)—its Playbill illustrated by a defective Rubik’s Cube whose images don’t align. Churchill’s characters cling to the elusive and illusive notion that, with enough information, they could understand each other and control their hearts and their environment. The playwright catches them out. In fifty-seven very short scenes, set in the here and now, fifteen actors play more than a hundred recognizable types of people (spouses, friends, children, colleagues, doctors, lovers, insomniacs and others) in a variety of relationships and moods, allowing the playwright to demonstrate countless permutations of the flawed human equation, and to explode the notion that a solution is even possible.
The setting for this engrossing production is a five-sided cube, walled, floored and ceiled in graph-paper lines (the work of Miriam Buether). The missing sixth side is the “fourth wall” that opens onto the audience, giving theatergoers the sense that they’re spying on the living experiments that pop up in the box every few minutes, each made distinct by a decisive change of props and a different relational twist. A scene may last five minutes, or might span only a few sibylline lines; but whether short or long, each carries Churchill’s characteristic, haunting resonance. One minute her words prompt laughs, the next, they summon tears. On an LED display, a sentence extracted from Churchill’s script could recall a Jenny Holzer pronouncement; but the force of her words resides off the page, twinned to an actor’s interpretation and embodiment of them. This is more true of her than of many other playwrights, particularly in this play. Her spare, essential, everyday language gives the director, James Macdonald, and the superb cast the chance to show off the unique power of theatrical performance to flex a playwright’s muscle and flesh out her subtlest intentions.
In one of the strongest segments, “Mother,” a truculent but on–the-whole decent kid (the vital, red-cheeked Noah Galvin) lolls on the sofa at home, reading while his bossy older sister (played with interesting petulance by Zoë Winters) tries to tell him something important. When she shouts at him to quit multi-tasking and give her his full attention, he retorts, “I can pay attention and do other things at the same time, I’m not braindead.” Fed up, she blurts, “Mom’s not your mother, I’m your mother, Mom’s your grandma, ok? Did you listen to that?” Stunned, the boy puts down his book, and asks, “Does Mom know you’re telling me?” What will become of their family, now that this truth is known? “I don’t have a sister, I don’t like that,” the boy says uncertainly. In a later episode, “Children,” a man (the winningly diffident James Waterston) and a woman (Jennifer Ikeda, in an alpha-female turn) have a loaded conversation on a hiking date. Apropos of nothing, the man discloses the fact that he’s infertile. “How did you find that out?” the woman asks. “When I was married, it came up, we had tests and it was me,” he responds. When his companion reacts to his confession with a caustic joke, he says, confused, “So it makes a difference does it?” The scene ends before she can reply. But really… how could there be a right answer?
Each time a scene ends, the stage goes black, and a different sound effect hints at the change in mood or theme that will kick in when the lights come up next—car horns, quacking ducks, tabulation machines, or a chainsaw. On occasion, audience members can be heard guessing the sound cue—one patron, hearing tinny ice-cream truck music before the scene called “Shrink,” said in relief, “I know this one!” And when the “Simpsons” theme played before the lights went up on “Mother,” laughter rang out across the theater.
But the more lingering satisfactions of this challenging play come not from certainties, but from the elements the audience cannot decode; complex, frustrating, familiar and heart-tugging dilemmas, which the playwright cannily pieces together in her scenarios, but which no amount of expertise can unscramble in the laboratory of real life.
Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information,” at the Minetta Lane Theatre, a New York Theatre Workshop production.