Off Broadway Review: ‘The Light Years’ by The Debate Society

Ken Barnett, Aya Cash, Brian Lee Huynh, Erik Lochtefeld, Rocco Sisto, Graydon Peter Yosowitz.

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.

Off Broadway Review: 'The Light Years' by The Debate Society

Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater; 198 seats; $89 top. Opens March 13, 2017. Reviewed March 8. Running time: ONE HOUR. 45 MINS.

Production: A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in one act by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and made by The Debate Society.

Creative: Directed and developed by Oliver Butler. Sets, Laura Jellinek; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Russell H. Champa; sound, Lee Kinney;  original music, Daniel Kluger; production stage manager, Ryan Gohsman.

Cast: Ken Barnett, Aya Cash, Brian Lee Huynh, Erik Lochtefeld, Rocco Sisto, Graydon Peter Yosowitz.

More Legit

  • The Play That Goes Wrong review

    BBC Orders Comedy Series Based on ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’

    The BBC has greenlit “The Goes Wrong Show,” a new series based on Mischief Theatre’s popular “The Play That Goes Wrong” stage production about a troupe that puts on disastrous plays. The stage show has transferred from London’s West End to Broadway for a J.J. Abrams-produced version described by Variety as “a broad, silly and [...]

  • By the Way Meet Vera Stark

    Off Broadway Review: 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' by Lynn Nottage

    After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head. Before we get too serious, let’s meet [...]

  • Merrily We Roll AlongRoundabout Theatre CompanyMERRILY

    Off Broadway Review: 'Merrily We Roll Along'

    Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around. They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new [...]

  • My Fair Lady Laura Benanti

    Listen: Laura Benanti on 'My Fair Lady' and the Secret to Her Melania Trump Impersonation

    Laura Benanti is now playing her dream role on Broadway. At the same time, the Tony winner (“Gypsy”) is also playing her toughest part ever. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “It’s the most demanding part I think I’ll probably play,” said Benanti, now appearing as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s well-received revival of [...]

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content