Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lovesong of the Electric Bear

Photo/Stan Barouh 

It can't be easy to be different, but it sure as heck makes it easy for someone to write a play about you. In Lovesong of the Electric Bear, Snoo Wilson's subject is Alan Turing (Alex Draper), the socially awkward British mathematician who--after being convicted of what was in 1950 known as "gross indecency"--committed suicide. Rather than styling the play in a machine-like way, as one might expect from this computer and A.I. pioneer, Wilson instead patterns it off Turing's immaturity, staging the action as the final dream of Turing's inanimate childhood companion, a stuffed bear named Porgy (Tara Giordano). The result is a bizarre memory play that traces Turing's life from his torment at boarding school to his redemption as a fellow at Cambridge, from his involvement in WWII as the head of a cryptanalyst team to his tireless attempts to create his "Universal Machine," and from his homosexuality to his chemical castration.

Just as Turing is said to "make no distinction between living things and machines," Wilson's script makes it difficult to tell the memories apart, or to rank them by importance. The multiply-cast actors don't help in this regard either, for it's hard to tell when they're returning as a previously introduced character, or if they're someone entirely new. If you're not familiar with Turing's personal history, this is even more difficult, for Wilson rarely explains the relevance of people like Dilly Knox (Peter B. Schmitz) and glosses over the importance of characters like Joan (Cassidy Boyd), turning what would be emotional moments into puzzled, intellectual ones. Thirty years are compressed into two hours, and what comes across clearest is the awkward humor of the play. It's not until the final scenes of the play, left alone with Turing's anguish over the betrayal of his lover, Arnold (Willie McKay), seeing him interact with his psychiatrist's family (Claire Graves and Lilli Stein), or being coldly abused by his mother/British judge (Nina Silver) and the doctors who medically unman him (Alex Cranmer), that we're able to feel anything.

Whether the play itself computes, it succeeds at showcasing Turing's stunted development. "For you to be married to someone, that someone needs to be more comfortable with existence than me," says Turing, breaking off his engagement with Joan--and his reason for doing so (his homosexuality) hardly matters. Instead, what's stressed, time and time again--and especially by Cheryl Faraone's whirlwind staging--is how out-of-place Turing is. The first thirty minutes of the play are the best, catching Turing at play with Foucault's pendulum as a bully waits to beat him up, or attempting to lecture two students on upper-level math while half-naked in a grass-stained shirt and skimpy running shorts. These moments of pure excitement are enough to make one forget their confusion and jump right in--and it's hard not to follow Draper's earnest commitment. But they don't last, and the lengthy middle of the play is not only repetitious but far too overt, less from Turing's perspective than from that of the people surrounding him, which only gives light to the madness.

Faraone's done her best to stage this wild and talky play, and only rarely--a gratuitously long drag sequence comes to mind--does it derail. But it never quite connects, either, and the cast is asked to be so malleable that they end up bending out of sight--there's no consistency, no grounding. Giordano, who has the most impossible task of both narrating and partaking in the action--despite being an imaginary friend--comes out as the winner in this production, never losing her concern for her master, despite throwing on a wide range of accents. She's the heart of this show, and Draper's the intellectual muscle, and together, they find compassion in the strangest of places.

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