“What if?” plays (and books and movies, for that matter) seem to have proliferated in recent years, some very successfully. A writer appropriates historical characters and incidents in their lives and reimagines conversations and confrontations for dramatic interest. But Lucas Hnath’s two-hour treatment of a clash between the English natural philosopher and mathematician Isaac Newton and his nemesis Robert Hooke is not so much a “What if?” as it is a “Never coulda happened.”
Hooke—an equally celebrated scientist in his day but now largely forgotten—was just seven years older than Newton, but he was firmly established as the curator of experiments at the Royal Society when Newton was just 25, still living in the country and desperate to join that elite group in order to further his work. So far, so good, even though in real life the two men didn’t meet until much later. Hnath’s play has Hooke (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells) traveling from London to rural Woolsthorpe to stop Newton (Haskell King) from working on an experiment quite similar to one that Hooke himself hopes to publish. Still promising.
Yet what follows is a mishmash of themes and topics that dulls the audience’s senses. With only two other people with whom to interact—a narrator who doubles as a plague victim (Jeff Biehl) and a woman, Catherine Storer (Kristen Bush), who improbably gets involved with both scientists—Hooke and Newton deal with religion (Newton believes he speaks for God and is rewriting the Bible), sex and drugs (Hooke is an addict of both), truth versus fiction, academic rivalry and chicanery, and the conflict between marriage and family (which Catherine at 35 wants) and career. That’s a lot of work for a little play that seems to be aiming above all for humor.
Worse still, the setting is not the actual Great Plague period of 1665 and 1666 but instead contemporary and virtually scenery-free. The players are in modern dress, with nary a nod to verisimilitude. (Newton had white hair, even as a teenager, but not here.) Worst of all, the people speak in modern clichés. All four characters are given to using such phrases as “end of story,” “that’s not gonna fly,” “it is what it is” and “hangin’ out.” Their favorite epithets are “crappy” and especially “fucked up,” which they use freely. I won’t, tempting though it might be.
Director Linsay Firman has done little to sort out Hnath’s text and seems to have indulged his actors in their disparate styles. Most egregiously he has allowed (or encouraged) Serafin-Wells to employ an Al Pacino prance during Hooke’s most crazed second-act drink and drug moments. Only Bush, as Catherine, creates a credible character.
Presented by the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, 459 W. 552nd St., NYC. Feb. 9–March 10. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, or www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org. Casting by Tom Rowan.
Critic’s Grade: D