As far as most of us knew growing up, old-time scientists were really smart, selfless people who explained how things worked. So we studied and revered them.
But in recent years, contemporary scientists have become the object of scorn in many right-wing circles, harangued as heathen purveyors of theories creationists consider blasphemous, such as “evolution” and “climate change.”
So, are scientists angels or devils? As Isaac’s Eye by Lucas Hnath posits, maybe the answer is a lot more complex. And this production at convergence-continuum manages to plumb the intricacies of both science and scientific fame in a fast-paced, layered staging that continually delights and surprises.
The titular Isaac in question is physicist and theologian Sir Isaac Newton, seen here long before his knighthood. In this play, Newton is a callow, rural lad in his twenties who has an active mind, lots of ideas, and an overweening ambition to be recognized as a genius. He is in an apparently arm’s length relationship with Catherine, a young woman who just wants a house and family.
But Isaac is compulsively focused on getting into the Royal Society, the learned body of scientists in London that was founded when Newton was 18 years old in 1660. So he targets the already renowned Robert Hooke, the curator of experiments at the Society, trying to convince Hooke to help Isaac get accepted into that exclusive club.
Did that actually happen? Well, just check the blackboards: As the play progresses, the Narrator (a calm and helpful Jonathan Wilhelm) writes down everything that’s true on a collection of blackboards that dominate the set. Anything else that appears in the play, we are told, is not proven fact.
This technique creates a constant tension between truth and fantasy, particularly since Hooke is apparently hooked on drugs while Newton is lost in his own delusions. In short, these are two very flawed, incredibly petty, but simultaneously gifted people who are threatened by the other’s brilliance. And than creates a bunch of interesting friction.
Even though he is young and raw, the prematurely graying Newton is convinced of the accuracy of his scientific conclusions because he knows that God is speaking through him. Meanwhile, he displays an Asperger’s-like inability to fully connect with or understand other people’s emotions. As a result, he occasionally seems to fabricate expressions of joy, uttering a mechanical “Yaaay” or a maniacal laugh in place of more natural expressions of happiness.
The central conflict, alluded to in the title, involves Newton’s insistence that light is made up of particles. This he claims as a fact, based on the experiment he conducted by sticking a needle into his own tear duct, pressing on his eyeball to alter its shape, and then noting the resultant changes. However, Hooke is a master of scientific experiments, and he challenges Netwon’s claims.
In addition to the instructive blackboards, playwright Hnath has his characters speak in current vernacular (“What the fuck!” and “I’m up shit creek!”), which adds humor to the often heady proceedings. The result is to make the sometimes complicated script relatable and continuously engaging.
As Newton, Bobby Coyne captures the wide-eyed excitement of a fertile mind in a constant state of discovery. But when Coyne attempts to explore the nastier reaches of Newton’s psychology, as when Isaac attempts to blackmail Hooke with intimate writings he has found, Coyne can’t quite negotiate that delicate balancing act. True or not, the gambit comes off as more of a prank and not a desperate bid for immortality.
Actually, the most compelling character in the play is Hooke, and Robert Branch plays him with an arrogant off-handedness that is at times terrifying. This is shown when Hooke happens upon a poor man, Sam (played with tongue-in-cheek fatality by Wilhelm), who is dying in the street from the Great Plague of London. A cold negotiation takes place: Hooke will help Sam if Hooke can slice off three small parts of the wretch’s body for study in his lab.
Eventually, Hooke hauls Sam back to Newton’s place, and they use the dying man as a guinea pig in their experiment, Hooke’s rampant vulnerabilities are exposed before he reveals his nasty end game. Branch registers these shifts in full, especially in a scene where he tries to enlist Catherine as an ally to stop Newton’s blackmail scheme. As Catherine, Amy Bistok Bunce does what she can with the rather colorless role.
Hnath’s words do a fine job of leveraging the egomaniacal, narcissistic scientists against the simple desires of average people. And director Clyde Simon shapes the play so that the audience allegiances shift in unexpected ways. In short, Isaac’s Eye experiments with the audience, and everyone should volunteer to participate in this entertaining investigation.
Isaac’s Eye, through April 11, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton, Rd., 216-687-0074.