Although they are dressed in contemporary clothes and using modern vernacular, the main characters in Lucas Hnath’s play Isaac’s Eye are indeed two important figures from the Enlightenment and earlier: Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke.
Understanding Hnath’s clever interplay of them and facets of their lives that may or may not be true is best summed up by a character named Actor who, as a Brechtian narrator, admits that the play serves up “a little lie to help you see something that’s difficult to see,” and probably more than once.
As played by Patrick Bynane in the Amphibian Stage Productions staging, sharply directed by Mary Catherine Burke, the Actor has the right angle of tongue-in-cheek, in that it’s not so firmly planted there, perhaps ready to shift and raspberry at any moment.
That’s important for the audience to invest in this story of a young Newton (Michael Linden) and his desire to out-think the already scientifically established Hooke (Greg Holt), whom he sees as his biggest obstacle to a future place in the history and science books.
There is one thing that could be in the way even for great men of genius: a woman. Catherine (Ashlee Bashore) is with Newton, who can only commit to the idea that he’ll have a lasting legacy, and he sees her as his path to Hooke. The more mature man bites, and becomes a rival for Newton in the romantic category as well.
The “eye” of the title refers to Newton’s experiment of sticking a needle in his tear ducts to assess how particles, color and light change in relation to changing the shape of the eye. But of course it’s also a metaphor for viewing the world as one wants to see it, especially when “I” could play an important role.
Adding to this idea of what’s real and what’s not real, chalkboards play a role as the Actor uses them for equations, diary entries and other purposes that can do more than instruct. After all, what’s the point of learning if you’re not enlightened?
At Amphibian, Seancolin Hankins’ set design puts the stage in one corner of the black box space, with clever use of chalkboard paint and sliding blackboards that also serve as doors and walls.
Bree Moore’s costumes are contemporary, as required, with references to the period, such as the lacework on Catherine’s blouse.
Holt exudes the kind of hubris that adds a layer of sex appeal to some men, and the one-upmanship between him and Linden is smartly played. Both recognize it from the beginning, but only Hooke knows there’s no way he can be one-upped. Until he is.
Hnath, a fast-rising star on the American theater scene (look for a more recent play on the next season at a major Dallas theater), wants you to consider the real world through glasses that might as well have fun-house mirrors as lenses.
In Amphibian’s quick-thinking and engaging production, recognizing that it’s not always so easy to distinguish fact from fiction is part of the fun.