The rise of existentialism is often attributed in part to the aftermath of two world wars, one of which was devoid of any morally compelling narrative and one in which the scale of atrocity was shocking to the public imagination. After senseless cruelty and violence, how can we maintain any faith in the essential goodness of man, or in any of the platitudes whispered to us as codas to childhood bedtime stories? These thoughts entwined with new developments in psychology, biology, and physics to destabilize attitudes toward religion, nationalism, and identity itself. It should come as no surprise that events of recent years have had a similar impact on some writers and thinkers. In the program note to Bethany Larsen's new play, The Uncertainty Principle, director Julie Fei-Fan Balzer writes that "three forces collided" as inspiration for the play: Sept. 11, 2001, "an old physics textbook and a TV special on string theory," and "an apartment fire on the next block, which prompted the question: What would life be like if you lost everything?"
The Uncertainty Principle is not a perfect play by any means, but it deals with "Big Ideas" without being boring or (for the most part) overly pretentious. The largely successful script is a testament to the young Milk Can Theater Company's commitment to developing new material through workshops, readings, and constructive critical dialogue with emerging playwrights.
The play's central character is Cassie (Lauren Gleason), a young New York City temp whose apartment—along with everything she owns—is engulfed in flames. Onstage action alternates between scenes of Cassie trying to put her life back together and dream sequences involving The Ringmaster (Casey McClellan). He's a hybrid trickster/angel/tough-love counselor who urges Cassie, who is some kind of high-wire performer in her dreams, to perform without a net and, if she falls, to embody the possibilities implied by Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle by simply passing right through the floor. (Yes, the play acknowledges, and plays with, the fact that this is something of a misreading of Heisenberg's quantum mechanics. His principle says it's impossible to discern simultaneously and accurately the position and momentum of an atomic or subatomic particle.)
When not dreaming, Cassie is struggling with listlessness and depression, much to the consternation of Jason (Chris Kloko), her gay best friend (obligatory for any twenty-something straight girl in New York); her possibly drug-addled mother (a hilarious Judy Chesnutt); and her charmingly geeky potential boyfriend Robert (Tim Downey.) To some extent, these are all stock characters, but enough little details are provided for them to walk convincingly in three dimensions.
The division between Cassie's waking life and her dreams breaks down enough for her to question her own sanity. The Ringmaster starts talking to her while she's awake and then, even more alarmingly, interacts occasionally with her friends and family. He helps her find an apartment and manipulates her physical surroundings in various ways. It's not always clear precisely what his agenda is, but he consistently urges Cassie to act with confidence and take chances, encouraging her to embrace uncertainty and instability as the source of life's exhilarating sense of possibility.
The actors all inhabited their roles well, but Chesnutt stole the show as Cassie's mother. Her performance was both gloriously over the top and extremely clever; she interacted with The Ringmaster, made contact with the audience, and, in a demanding meta-theatrical moment built into the script, acknowledged the artifice of her character and the theater itself while still gleefully throwing herself into the role.
The production's design team, doing double duty by also working on the extremely demanding Trojan Women 2.0 (running in repertory with this show), efficiently sketched out the slightly exaggerated world of the play. David Withrow's costumes allowed for Gleason's quick onstage costume changes as she moved between dream scenes and waking scenes, and each character was given an almost iconic look: a tight, slightly sparkly sweater for Jason, a pert, Florence Henderson-inspired dress for Mom, etc. Set designer Carrie Mossman was limited to a few rehearsal cubes and some flats that also had to serve for the other show's set, but the minimalist flexibility worked well with Balzer's fluid staging.
The implication that The Ringmaster is not entirely a figment of Cassie's addled imagination muddies The Uncertainty Principle's philosophical outlook somewhat. Embracing chance, accident, and uncertainty is an admirable goal, but the revelation that there really is a man behind the curtain doesn't quite support it. Throughout the play, The Ringmaster urges Cassie to work without a net, but by giving her trickster flesh and blood and prescience, Larsen has unwittingly implied that there is a kind of metaphysical net after all.
Overall, The Uncertainty Principle is a fun and entertaining exploration of serious themes and a refreshing reminder that existentialism and optimism don't have to be mutually exclusive. It is also, in the play's own words, a "New York story," a celebration of life in a city that has suffered substantial blows in the early years of the 21st century but shows no sign of giving up its high-wire act.