Space has landed off-Broadway: the great beyond evoked on comparatively small stages, and with copious magic and warmth.
The Light Years, a production of the award-winning and critically hailed Debate Society, is about light and illumination as much as the universe, takes us to Chicago, and the 1893 and 1933 Chicago World’s Fairs.
The magic of invention, of new worlds and technologies, binds both fairs—and that sense of magic and possibility is set right at the beginning of Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s charming if slightly belabored play.
Rocco Sisto as the real-life impresario Steele MacKaye introduces us in hushed tones at the beginning, hilariously, as he makes it hammily clear that things may not go as planned.
Indeed, the first thing we hear as the stage is thrust into darkness is the panicked, muffled voices of men trying to fix something we cannot see, and an apologetic MacKaye is lit, balefully, by a candle.
Stage finally revealed—the switching between years aided at the side of the stage a vintage electronic sign with antic lettering showing stage notes (“Later, a little later..”)—we meet Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld) and his assistant-cum-compadre Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh), who are working on a magnificent theater, the 12,000-seat Spectatorium, for the 1893 Fair.
Utter chaos, developed and directed with a genuine thrill of what-will-happen-next by Oliver Butler, unfolds: The loquacious and determined Hillary and the quieter, loyal Sling are each other’s perfect foil as sparks explode and rather large, heavy things threaten to topple over.
Laura Jellinek’s economical but busy design shows the cause of all the clangs and sputtering—the men are experimenting, and things keep blowing up and going wrong. All the madness of invention is on display. Into this merry chaos comes Adeline (Aya Cash), Hillary’s wife, an eccentric herself, bewitched by her husband’s experimentation.
And occasionally, we see the magic made real, thanks to Russell H. Champa’s lighting design: a throng of stars and constellations around the stage, and a truly astonishing display, which without words ends the show.
Before all that, an awful tragedy strikes, which means that the centerpiece of the display, a model moon studded with bulbs, stays in the home that Hillary and Adeline shared, and which, come 1933, is owned by Lou (a jaunty then stressed Ken Barnett), wife Ruth (Cash again), and their son Charlie (a charming and wide-eyed Graydon Peter Yosowitz), who sleeps in the mysterious moon—it’s his choice of refuge.
MacKaye had first indicated the star Arcturus in 1893, as 40 years away from Earth (not as precisely dated, as it turns out), and that same star links the action to 1933, when that fair’s organizers conceived of a plan to focus on light emanating from it onto a photocell that will trigger the fair’s electric systems.
But Lou is no mad scientist. Instead, his creative mind is exercised conceiving advertising jingles, and The Light Years follows the dissolution of his artsy idealism as lucrative work gets tougher to find. Cash perfectly embodies the scatty Adeline and the considerably more careworn Ruth.
Charlie still has the wonder of the house’s previous inhabitants in his heart, though, and when an older Sling visits—a brilliantly fast aging sequence makes you wish he was more central to the show—we realize that creativity still hums here. The older Lou is in the attic watching Ruth, who obviously so looks like his beloved Adeline—and in secrecy he is working on a massive project.
The Light Years is best in when it is playing with the world of light, and a little more plodding when it trades in conventional domestic drama. You yearn for the sparks of the workshop, rather than around the kitchen table. But the play is bound and threaded by a belief in creativity and wonder; a wide-eyed pleasure in all that we don’t know, and then bamboozle ourselves trying to invent.
At the Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub, Ethan Lipton and his squad of musicians, all attired in natty, snugly fitted spacesuits, take us to another planet entirely in the many-songed The Outer Space, directed by Leigh Silverman.
The songs imagine an old couple who have bought a spaceship. Off they go to live light years away. The only problem is their problems with each other are magnified, and then there are the neighbors—delightfully eccentric and a diverse bunch, but there isn’t much privacy when you have your spaceship parked right alongside somebody else’s, it turns out.
Lipton’s witty imagining of outer space sounds less like the final frontier, and more like a pretty conventional suburban street, but the stage of Joe’s Pub is too small for anything too elaborate, so Lipton’s lyrics must marry instead to costume and scenic designer David Zinn’s interplanetary-themed drapes, lit enchantingly by Ben Stanton.
Lipton and his musicians—Vito Dieterle, Eben Levy, and Ian Riggs—have all composed and perform the songs together. The happy result marries the easy listening of bluegrass and soft rock, with some witty musing on how to live, love, and find fulfillment in space, when all the time your hips and legs don’t bend like they used to.
The songs are a warmly waspish marriage of the domestically mundane and the Space Age. Out there in another world are all the same old problems, it turns out—even if the view when you get out of bed is considerably more dramatic.
The Light Years runs until April 2 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., New York City. Book tickets here. The Outer Space runs until April 9 at Joe’s Pub at the Public, 425 Lafayette St., New York City. Book tickets here.