Isaac’s Eye by Lucas Hnath, directed by Linsay Firman, The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
Isaac’s Eye takes as starting points what it asserts are a few “truths,” (e.g., Newton stuck a needle into his eye as a scientific experiment, Newton was engaged once but never married) to construct a play about the young Isaac Newton. The truths are arbitrarily selected and some are suppositions, even though they’re chalked onto a blackboard that, we’re told, holds genuine truths, which is not playing fair with the audience! While the first act has some point to it, the second trails off into unsupported, drawn out material that doesn’t add up to any insight or interest.
The first act brings together two scientists with different points of view in a potentially meaningful conflict: Robert Hooke as a proponent of experiment, and Newton, depicted as believing he has an intuitive “God told me so I am certainly right” genius.
After several letters from Newton seeking admission to the Royal Society of London, Hooke, the Society’s Curator of Experiments, comes from London to visit Newton in his rural hamlet intending to shut down the youthful competitor or at least delay him a few decades. Driven by genuine scientific curiosity, however, Hooke is drawn into wanting verification of an experiment in which Newton plunges a needle into his eye, causing a prismatic breakdown of light into color, thus proving that light is formed of particles, not waves. As I read Newton’s notes, which you can find at this link, what he describes he saw in the needle-in-the-eye experiment differs from what is recounted in the play, and doesn't demonstrate that light is particles, but I’m not a scientist so perhaps I’ve missed something.
At any rate, in Newton’e Eye, Hooke’s urges that Newton repeat the experiment using an objective subject who has no vested interest in the outcome. This leads to the revelation that Newton lied about ever having done the experiment at all, on himself or anybody else -- he just “knows” he's right about what would happen if one did it because his father died before he was born and so he’s closer to God. This gross violation of the empiricism Hooke represents creates some interesting conflict in Act I, which would be meaningful except that according to his written notes, Newton did the experiment and there’s no reason to believe he lied to Hooke. Historical drama has broad license but arbitrary playing with the audience under the guise of telling a truth is ... well frankly it’s a turn-off.
In Act II, Hooke drinks too much, makes bathetic noise, all but seduces Newton’s girl friend Catherine, and is uncovered as a child molester -- anything to keep things going. We move from over-stretched historical license to fantasy when Newton, finally trying the experiment on himself -- and abandoned by Hooke, Catherine, and everyone else because of his nasty, self-involved temperament -- spends a month or so unable to move out of a chair, with the needle in his eye.
The actors wear modern casual dress and speak in contemporary language which starts things off with an appealing immediacy. In Act I, Haskell King provies a persuasive portrait of Newton’s self-involved and ambitious personality. Kristen Bush brings warmth and dignity to the role of Catherine, the woman friend he never can quite bring himself to propose to although by Act II, her script driven deviousness and emotional turnabouts have broken through this character’s plausibility.
Michael Louis Serafin-Wells brings charismatic vitality and humor to the serious minded but pleasure loving Hooke. Jeff Biehl is engaging as actor/narrator, and also a man dying of the plague, desperate enough to agree to let Newton stick a needle in his eye in one of the play’s more gruesome scenes. Plague at the time was known to be highly contagious (Newton, like many, fled to the country to escape it), yet neither of these two smart men appears concerned about hands on experimental contact with pustule-covered man dying of the disease: Newton sticks the needle into the dying man’s eye, Hooke holds him down, and together they haul out the corpse and throw it in the river.
At times in Act I, I thought Newton’s Eye was heading for the level of the the Ensemble Studio Theatre and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s brilliant production of Photograph 51, about Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of the DNA double helix, also directed by Linsay Firman, but no such luck.
Isaac's Eye plays at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Manhattan's Clinton district, midtown west side, through February 24. For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.
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