But it's the intellectual ambition of Plasticity where the creative team makes its more confident stretch. Although the play centers on the emotionally fraught decision of when and whether to remove a vegetative comatose patient from life support, its real subject is the enigma of human consciousness. And that puts Lyras and McCaskill in the company of poets, scientists and philosophers for whom cracking the metaphysical mystery of our essential being has been a timeless if elusive obsession.
The evening’s boldest gamble is how much of its tale is told as high-tech spectacle projected on lighting designer Matt Richter’s double-screen scrim set. Plasticity opens with a pulse-pumping montage by video designer Corwin Evans (set to sound designer Ken Rich’s synth-rock score) in which a psychedelic barrage coalesces into a video sequence of a climber on a rock face in a metaphoric leap across a vertiginous void. It’s only then that the action cuts to the hospital intensive care unit, where the bulk of the story is set.
Lyras mostly plays Grant Rosely, the brash, entrepreneurial twin brother of daredevil thrill-seeker David, who lies in a coma, though from a brain aneurysm rather than a climbing fall. But Lyras also plays the various doctors, nurses and attorneys who seem to feed Grant contradictory and even misleading information as he works through his conflicted feelings and memories of his sibling. Trouble comes in the form of David’s never-seen girlfriend Kate, who first maneuvers around Grant’s next-of-kin right to pull the life-support plug, and then removes the vegetative patient to her small apartment to selflessly devote her life to his 'round-the-clock care.
Both the medicine and the moral dilemma are undeniably compelling stuff. The play is loosely based on an actual case of a Massachusetts man who suddenly awoke from a coma in 2003 after 19 years — a miracle attributed to “neural plasticity,” the brain’s ability to rewire itself following a severe injury. Lyras and McCaskill shorten the coma to four years to better fit their plot, but their firm grasp of the philosophical paradoxes presented by cognitive disorders delivers much of the brain-teasing wonder of a ripping Oliver Sachs yarn.
Where Plasticity falters is in the strained dramaturgy dictated by its solo-performer conceit. Although Lyras gets to strut his versatility in a colorful, all-male portrait gallery of rogues and eccentrics, portraying women is evidently outside his wheelhouse. It’s a thorny problem for a narrative whose heart is the emotional and custodial tug-of-war between Grant and Kate, and the play tries to write around the wrinkle by contriving secondary characters to speak for the Penelope-like heroine. But it's a jury-rig that only makes her absence increasingly conspicuous even as it flattens the show’s redemptive power.
Whether or not Plasticity’s seductive if insistently compact packaging is intended to accommodate touring, any future for the play may hinge on hiring an actress and expanding the cast into a two-hander.
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