The Debate Society has developed a loyal cult following among adventurous theater nerds over the past decade for their immersive and subversive shows, staged in intimate bare bones spaces like the Bushwick Starr. The Light Years, a sweeping tale of love and invention through the ages, is currently running on the pristine mainstage of Playwrights Horizons through Sunday.
The space is larger and the seats plusher, but the mission remains the same: to engage us in an expansive journey that’s not easily explained but vividly remembered. While the intermissionless one act (penned by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and directed by their longtime collaborator Oliver Butler) is focused on preparations for the World’s Fair, the subject is really the passage of time. An old timey scroll stage right marks frequent jumps between 1893 and 1933 as we peer into the lives of an electrician, Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld), and a struggling jingle composer, Lou (Ken Barnett) as they toil away on their contributions to the impending fair.
Hillary is working on a light installation for the Spectatorium, soon to be the largest theater in the world. It’s the dream vision of real life theatrical impresario Steele MacKaye whose inventions of folding theater seats and flameproof curtains have long outlived his memory. Played with dramatic flair by Rocco Sisto, he acts as the narrator, appearing not only on stage but also in the aisles of the theater and towering above in the balcony. Another unifying force is the quietly radiant Aya Cash who plays Adeline and Ruth, the wives of Hillary and Lou respectively. Both men struggle to impress and support her. Their dreams surpass practical confines, and the creation of a lasting contribution remains elusive.
The marvel of Bos and Thureen’s writing is they manage to infuse each line of dialogue with optimistic wonder even in the face of the stark obstacles of death and the Great Depression. While the show feels a bit amorphous at the start, Butler fashions detailed worlds for each storyline and by the end they are seamlessly and inextricably woven together. Lochtefeld embodies the drive of a mad inventor with a romantic streak while Barnett vividly communicates Lou’s inner struggle with a subtle glance. A particularly heartbreaking moment comes when he lies to Ruth about getting a job. It’s as though he sets out to tell her the truth but as they lock eyes the gap between who he is and who he wants to be becomes painfully apparent and unbearable.
The title refers to a star forty light years away when the play begins, and it serves as a fitting metaphor for the elusiveness of creation. It shines brightly in the mind’s eye and can be seen flickering in the sky, but it takes a long journey before its entirety is revealed and in that act lies the potential for grave destruction. There are no grand resolutions by the end but rather a keen awareness of all that has come before and all that has yet to be created.
Starring: Ken Barnett, Aya Cash, Brian Lee Huynh, Erik Lochtefeld, Rocco Sisto and Graydon Peter Yosowitz
Directed by: Oliver Butler
Written by: Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen
Through: April 2nd at Playwrights Horizons