Brooklyn-based theater company the Debate Society creates their shows in an unusual way. The three core members of the group, Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen, and Oliver Butler, often spend years researching elements that might make a play. In the case of The Light Years, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, Bos took her love of the Chicago World’s Fairs of 1893 and 1933 and this was merged with Butler’s interest in Steele MacKaye, an old-fashioned impresario who created a structure called the Spectatorium at the 1893 fair.
According to the program, the Debate Society spent seven years working on The Light Years, and what has resulted is a strange, bewilderingly random series of scenes that move back and forth between 1893 and 1933. Steele MacKaye (Rocco Sisto) narrates some of the show, and Sisto speaks and gestures in a grand theatrical manner that seems to want to evoke the spirit of someone like showman David Belasco. The red-haired Aya Cash plays somewhat similar female roles in both the 1893 scenes and the 1933 scenes, and the 1933 scenes have the slight edge here because they are filled with “snappy” dialogue and colorful slang of the time.
Presumably a number of those years spent creating The Light Years went into the research of the outdated slang, and this is no doubt a fun way to spend some time, but there seems to be nothing happening on stage in The Light Years—there is nothing at stake, and no narrative really emerges. When the Debate Society has worked at smaller theaters in Brooklyn, the private quirks of their productions have had a kind of intimacy that has won them a small but devoted following. But when you’re doing a show at Playwrights Horizons, more is expected of you. The scale is larger, and consequently the expectations are larger, too.
Some of the actors manage to make individual moments come briefly alive. Ken Barnett has a vivid presence, as does the young boy who plays his son, Graydon Peter Yosowitz. There is a scene where Barnett’s character is trying to write a commercial jingle on the piano where he enlists the aid of his son and his wife that feels like something that might have actually happened. But the mix here of different periods of the past doesn’t lead anywhere.
The Light Years is like the branches of a tree set out on the ground. The company presents this branch and then that branch, and then they add a smaller branch and a larger one. They haul another branch from way out somewhere that they found in some rare book, and then another branch that was hidden in a family basement. But these branches are always separate and un-related to each other. They have not been placed onto a structure that might make them into a tree, or a play. That might have some charm in a small storefront space, but it doesn’t have any impact at all in this venue.
Photo by Joan Marcus