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A CurtainUp Review
Isaac's Eye

" There's the life you live and the life you live beyond it. "— Robert Hooke
We have a tendency to associate famous names from history with particular moments and actions: Martin Luther King with "I Have A Dream," Jimi Hendrix with his performance of the national anthem at Woodstock, Joan of Arc with her sacrifice. In science, most of us mix the people with the theories associated with them, and so what you'll normally think of when Isaac Newton's name comes up is something about a tree, a falling apple, and gravity. But as is usually the case with historical figures, Newton was involved in much more than developing the theory of gravity, and as The Ensemble Studio Theatre's new production of Isaac's Eye attempts to demonstrate, there was much more to Newton's life than science.

Lucas Hnath's play is an odd, sometimes uncomfortable mixture of old and new. On the one hand it attempts to tell the story of a largely unexplained episode in Newton's (Haskell King) life when he inserted a needle below his eyebal ; on the other hand by looking at historical figures with whom he came in contac:. Robert Hooke (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells), the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, and Catherine Storer (Kristen Bush), the daughter of an apothecary in the town where Newton grew up.  

Both dialogue and costumes are completely modern, and as I'll discuss more in a moment, the play shifts somewhat uneasily between the modern speculations about Newton's life and personality and the actual facts which it is at pains to relate within the course of the tale. Every "true" part of the story is written on the blackboard or the walls behind the stage, and the "narrator" (Jeff Biehl) makes ongoing references to the nature of the project in which the actors are engaged, both fictional and real.

It adds up to an awful lot of meta-commentary for one play to handle, and the end result is mixed. On the positive side, the cast, well-directed by Linsay Firman, is generally solid, with particularly good performances from Bush as Newton's love interest Catherine and Serafin-Wells as Newton's rival and enemy Hooke. The information about Hook about whom I knew very little, is particularly interesting. Serafin-Wells does a good job in representing the nuances of the narcissistic and sexually deviant Hooke. King is decent as Newton, but his portrayal is so filled with antisocial, emo angst that he sometimes seems more like a figure out of The Big Bang Theory than history.

Ultimately, the contemporary portrayal creates the play's biggest problems. Hooke and Newton are so charmless that it's hard to muster much sympathy for either of them, and I assume that Hnath decided to give Isaac's Eye a modern overlay to make them somewhat more relatable. But the costumes seem haphazard rather than hip, and the hypermodern dialogue, with numerous f-bombs in tow, doesn't do the production any favors. Moreover, it's not clear that this particular event was quite as important as the play seems to think it is. Despite some interesting details the speculations often do less to illuminate than to confuse.

The narrative is at its best when it tries not to serve two masters and instead focuses all its attention on totally original moments ——like Newton and Hooke's conversation with a plague victim, also played by Biehl), whose commentary is the most human part of the play. Fortunately, there are many more of these moments in the second act than the first, and so despite my reservations, I think Isaac's Eye is ultimately a qualified success.

No one can know for sure what motivated Newton to become the person he did, nor what might have been if he acted differently. But Isaac's Eye does a credible job in offering some possibilities, and providing a context for a brilliant but troubled young man who made incredible contributions to scientific knowledge — at significant cost to himself.

Editor's Note: To read about some other science related plays Curtainup has reviewed, go here.

Isaac's Eye
Playwright: Lucas Hnath
Director: Linsay Firman
Cast: Jeff Biehl (Actor, Dying Man), Kristen Bush (Catherine), Haskell King (Isaac Newton), Michael Louis Serafin-Wells (Robert Hooke)
Scenic Designer: Nick Francone
Costume Designer: Suzanne Chesney
Lighting Designer: Les Dickert
Running time: Two hours with a ten minute intermission
The Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd St., (212) 247-4982
From 2/2/13 to 2/24/13; opening 2/9/13
Wednesday-Sunday @ 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday @ 2 p.m. a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Tickets: $30.00 general admission, $20.00 students and seniors, $5 - $25 "Pick Your Price" Matinees
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on Feb. 2nd performance
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