There’s plenty of wattage but little illumination in the latest groupthink by The Debate Society, the theater collective that spent seven years making “The Light Years,” which tells twin stories of dashed dreams set in Chicago’s World Fairs in 1893 and 1933. But the time-bouncing tale, now at Playwrights Horizons, fall far short of the historic, personal and cosmic connections the show’s creators are so clearly after. It’s a muddle of thinly realized notions, wrapped in a quirky sensibility that estranges rather than endears.
The acting styles – from a cast that includes Aya Cash of “You’re the Worst” — careen from turn-of-the-last-century melodrama to a surreal Frank Capra buoyancy and sentimentality, to a tiresome tongue-in-cheekiness, with occasional flashes of naturalism. Like its central characters, “The Light Years” over-aspires, while at the same time feels, despite its long time in development, eerily incomplete and disconnected.
The main story centers on Steele MacKaye (Rocco Sisto), a real-life 19th-century impresario who has designed and, at play’s start, is building “The Spectatorium,” a 12,000-seat theater of epic proportions, the biggest theater in the world with the latest in state-of-the-art stagecraft in this new age of electricity. It will, he predicts, not only be hugely entertaining but enlightening. Helping him create his central special effect — “the moon-cart” — is an earnest electrician named Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld), and Hillary’s loyal assistant, Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh). Also on hand is Hillary’s feisty, often annoying and all-too-curious wife Adeline (Cash).
The play fast-forwards 40 years in the same apartment that was home to Hillary and Adeline, except now it’s occupied by a young family struggling through the Depression: Lou (Ken Barnett), an ever-hopeful jingle writer; devoted Ruth (Cash again), who bears a striking resemblance to Adeline, and their 11-year-old son, the gee-whiz-golly Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz). There’s also the mysterious presence of their reclusive landlord upstairs in the attic – a mystery that will eventually and awkwardly tie the narratives together, but to little emotional effect.
Under the director of Oliver Butler, themes of failed visionaries and American inventiveness and theories of time, place and relativity are presented in a sometimes-arch, sometimes-haunting style that fails to jell or engage.
Even accepting the parable nature of the play’s fantastical conceit, the characters remain flat archetypes with dialogue filled with period slang of the day, accounting for the show’s awkward strain of humor.
Laura Jellinek’s two-level setting is impressive as is Lee Kinney’s sound design. But the star of the show is lighting designer Russell H. Champa, who grounds the production in the warmth of his many glowing orbs.