Star Struck

Barely two weeks after the Mars Climate Orbiter vanished from NASA’s radar, Tina Landau‘s play Space received its West Coast launch at the Mark Taper Forum, and also proceeded to disappear -- somewhere between intermission and curtain. The orbiter failed because NASA assumed the specs in its owner’s booklet referred to metric units, when the manufacturer had in fact used English measurements. The satellite presumably incinerated in the Red Planet‘s atmosphere, just as Space, written in New Age Esperanto for English-speaking audiences, may well do in the far more hostile theater environment of New York, where it is scheduled to open at the Public next month.

You can’t accuse Landau (Floyd Collins) of thinking small; her comedy-drama examines the cosmos and our shifting perceptions of it, along with clashing gender attitudes toward science, and, for ballast, throws in an old-fashioned love story. If any one of these elements had clicked, Space could have been a thought-provoking evening; but Landau, who also directs this effort, simply doesn‘t spend enough time cultivating any one of her subjects. By play’s end, one doesn‘t feel like a spiritual astronomer as much as some fatigued voyeur presented with a new telescope.

The story begins early one morning with a man awakening from an unpleasant, incomprehensible dream -- and with a nosebleed. Dr. Allan Saunders (Francis Guinan) is no ordinary mortal but a celebrity neuropsychiatrist with his face on television and book jackets, a sought-after explainer and simplifier of modern neuroses. Hours after waking from his restive sleep, he is visited in his university office by a student (Michael Reisz) haunted by memories of alien encounters that are too close for comfort. Immediately afterward, a middle-aged woman (Mary Pat Gleason) who works in the school’s admissions office appears with a similar story, to be followed by a caustically impatient patient (J. August Richards) who has identical abduction memories. Soon the trio‘s recollections of lying on metal tables and being probed and watched by big, black-eyed observers, and of waking with nosebleeds, stir deeply buried memories in Saunders. If that weren’t enough, a woman dressed in white (Karen Fineman) occasionally glides onstage to sing in an operatically ethereal voice.

What‘s a scientist to do? Well, on one purely professional level he must locate colleagues to refute the anecdotal evidence of alien kidnapping that links his three patients; but on another, more theatrical plane, he must throw out his academic prejudices against paranormal phenomena, become a seeker, jeopardize his career and fall in love. Dr. Saunders leaps through all these hoops with the help of a lupus-stricken astronomer, Dr. Bernadette Jump Cannon (Shannon Cochran). She, along with a sulky Gen-X research assistant (Eric D. Steinberg), occupies a noiseless, dimly lit nook in the university, where the pair listen for electronic signals from deep space.

“It’s like the lair of the Medusa in here,” the ubershrink quips upon visiting this unfriendly couple, but he soon takes a shine to their lab -- and to Dr. Cannon. By the end of Act 1 he has emptied his head of his old ways of thinking, made a fool of himself before an international conference and suffered an emotional breakdown. But, in a way, so does the play itself; for when we return to our seats after intermission, we find there really isn‘t a second act waiting for us, just a second half: an hour of chitchat in which Cannon reveals her childhood obsession with the life of stars and distant, aloof bodies (not surprisingly, a dead father figures into the origins of her pastime), while a lot of star maps (designed by Jan Hartley) are projected onto James Schuette’s set.

As we count the number of places Space could have ended, we realize we‘ve been had -- there was nothing up Landau’s sleeve after all. But by now it is too late to do anything but listen to Saunders and Cannon coo about Spaceship Earth and the immensity of you-know-what, and to hear the lady in white sing a bit more (and, perhaps, to make comparisons with Ellen McLaughlin‘s equally airy Tongue of a Bird, seen earlier this year at the Taper). Although Landau never follows up on their earlier debate about gender perceptions of science (that men embrace the Baconian notion that more knowledge equals more power, while women find more information about the universe to increase their humility), to her credit she never becomes a slave to the literary and pop-cultural allusions made by her characters.

Still, Landau does indulge in an embarrassing chalk talk early on, when Dr. Cannon sermonizes about the transient nature of scientific knowledge -- as slides of Galileo, Darwin and Freud beam on the wall behind her. It is this eagerness to gush and preach at the same time that robs Space of its promise and diminishes even the production’s brilliant design elements.

This is an obvious shame, because it is Space‘s look and sound, essentially imported from the 1997 Steppenwolf Theater premiere production, which, while dwarfing the play’s modest pretensions, also reinvigorate it at key moments. Schuette‘s set, with its steep stair ramp, momentarily suggests that the action occurs on the ground floor of the Guggenheim Museum -- an appropriate nod to romantic modernism and its heavenward gaze, for the show itself is always looking to the great beyond. And at the expanses of the mind: There are two scenes in Act 1 where Saunders’ perception of reality undergoes near-psychedelic transformations; at one point he shrinks into insignificance as the lawn that is projected behind him grows up into a towering forest.

All this is put to great effect by Landau, who, as director, so ably instilled a sense of wonder into her production of Jose Rivera‘s Cloud Tectonics several years ago at La Jolla Playhouse. Here, the complex, mesmerizing dialogue between the light and sound cues (respectively, by Scott Zielinski, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) is quite an achievement, often playing off familiar film imagery, as when a ring of white lights hovers above Saunders’ bed, suggesting UFO “landing lights.”

The cast can be said to fall somewhere between the writing and the lighting. Cochran exudes a cool, self-deflating irony as Cannon (think Joan Didion with an astrophysics degree), but Guinan‘s over-the-top performance as Saunders often comes close to going off the Richter scale and, in fact, did come too near to falling off the stage on press night. The ensemble is adequate to its tasks, with Richards providing the needed jolts of electricity whenever his angry, frustrated character, Taj Mahal, appears in Saunders’ office.

The last month has seen a harmonic convergence of plays about alien abductions, real or imagined, on local stages; besides Space, there‘s been Neena Beber’s Common Vision, Dean Haglund‘s Paranoia Will Destroy Ya and Michael Farkash’s Stolen Time. Perhaps it‘s a millennial malaise, or simple nostalgia for science-fiction promises, that has prompted this. Or maybe, as Space suggests, it comes from a desire to tell our most fugitive thoughts, whether the audience wants to hear them or not.


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