The variety of lights—glittering constellations, moon, explosions, electrical mishaps, the earth—that Russell H. Champa has produced abundantly in The Light Years are inventive and terrific. They don’t, however, illuminate what playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen are getting at. Inspired by Bos’s childhood remembrances of family members who spoke of two world’s fairs held in Chicago, in 1893 and 1933, and by director Oliver Butler, who knew about real-life theatrical impresario Steele MacKaye, a forgotten innovator. Developed by Bos and Thureen for the Debate Society, The Light Years is in part a pageant play glorifying scientific progress and human aspirations in the form of the inventions presented at the American expositions. If it also means to show the hardships that inventors endure—well, there’s not much news in that.
The show jumps back and forth between 40 years to bring two sets of characters to life. The grandiloquent visionary MacKaye (Rocco Sisto) has invented a Nebulator to create cloud and smoke effects and a scrolling announcement called a Silent Unfolding Announcer that introduces scenes, rather like intertitles in a silent film: Overture, 40 Long Years from Now, A Bit Later, and so on.
Erik Lochtefeld plays the determined Hillary, the man in charge of the Spectatorium, MacKaye’s most ambitious vision, for the 1893 Columbian Exposition (named after Columbus, it was a close celebration of the 400th anniversary of his discovery of America). It was at the 1893 fair that pancakes were introduced, along with the image of Aunt Jemima, and bicycles were all the rage.
Assisted by Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh), Hillary is racing to complete the Spectatorium: a huge, domed theater that will seat 12,000, show the constellations on the inner dome, and have thousands of bulbs. It involves much dangerous work with electricity, still a new phenomenon, and Lee Kinney’s vital sound design deftly assists Champa’s light bursts and sparks to produce aural frissons.
At home with his wife, Adeline, Hillary tinkers on a side project: placing a plethora of lights on the Mooncart, an invention that provides moonlight for the show. Adeline, however, is a distracting presence for Hillary, barging into his dangerous workplace with persistent, curious questions. She has a cavalier attitude to the dangers of electricity and an unladylike determination to ride a bicycle.
At the other end of the play is the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. Another family now lives in what turns out to be the same apartment as Hillary and Adeline had lived. Forty years later the occupants are Lou (Ken Barnett, who has a vaguely hangdog air that proves apt), a jingle writer; his wife, Ruth (Aya Cash, who doubles as Adeline); and their son, Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz).
It is the depth of the Great Depression, though, and Lou is struggling to sell his work. Ruth is supplementing their income with a job at the fair in the Pancake Pavilion, celebrating the 40th anniversary of pancakes, from which she brings home leftover eats. His son Charlie, who sleeps in the abandoned Mooncart of 1893, is excited by the new fair and wants to ride on the Skyride, one of the prime attractions—along with the Zeppelin, margarine, and Sally Rand’s fan dancing. Meanwhile, living in the attic space above them is a presence long in seclusion.
It’s easy to pick out the themes: man’s insatiable curiosity and a desire to explore, to control his destiny, and to make his mark. “I’m only a small part of it,” Hillary tells Adeline. “But this is something that will be known forever. I get to, with my own hands, make something that will be known forever.” But although the Spectatorium was to have had constellations inside the dome and be an eternal monument to Mackaye’s genius, like Ozymandias, he has been virtually forgotten.
Bos and Thureen’s message is that exploration and improvements to the lives of mankind come at untold personal cost. Both families are believers in the future, and both are beset by the failures of the present. Along with the personal sacrifice that comes with bettering the human condition, almost as an afterthought, is a subsidiary thread about women’s equality.
Yet Bos and Thureen’s script too often gets bogged down by didacticism, as if all the keen bits of historical lore they uncovered in their research had to be included. Unfortunately, it doesn’t substitute for dramatic conflict, and the struggles on both sides of the 40-year gap don’t really seize and hold one’s attention the way the visuals do.
The actors perform well, notably Lochtefeld, as Hillary, and Huynh, who has a tour de force monologue during which he ages visibly 40 years while explaining what has happened to Hong, as Laura Jellinek’s set is updated around him. But one wishes there were a more compelling reason to spend time with these characters than living history.
The Debate Society’s The Light Years, by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, plays through April 2 at Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St., between 9th and 10th avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit playwrightshorizons.org.