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A Mediocre Evening with Sir Isaac Newton

Isaac’s Eye
Ensemble Studio Theater
549 W. 52nd Street
New York, N.Y.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in plays about historical inventors actually told you what was accurate and what was invented? Well, in Isaac’s Eye, a play about philosopher/mathematician Isaac Newton that just opened in New York, they do. A narrator comes out and tells you what is fact and what is fiction and true parts of the plot are written on the blackboards on the walls of the theater. So now you can sit back and enjoy a play about the great man who invented Calculus and figured out motion and gravity, right?

No. Isaac’s Eye is a tedious play that tells very little about history. It's ostensibly set in 1665, but all the characters dress and talk as if it took place last Thursday. The single-set story takes place in what looks like a laboratory or classroom, plus lots of chalk to write on the walls.

The play, which opened last week, is the fictional story of how Isaac Newton, a thin, short man with premature white hair, tried to get Robert Hooke, a grumpy official of Great Britain’s prestigious Royal Society and eminent scientist, to admit him to the group based on an experiment he claimed he did (it involved sticking a long needle into his eye to see if the eye sees colors in a different way when bent by the needle). Founded in 1660, during the reign of Charles II, the Society served as an advisor to the government (today it has over 1,300 members). Isaac, and later Hooke, also romps around with Catherine, a druggist’s daughter (not too much, though, as Newton was a lifelong celibate).

The play starts with a slow first half hour of ponderous talk that goes nowhere. It does heat up when Newton steals Hooke’s diary only to discover that he's s consummate sexual predator who seems to have bedded every woman in Great Britain, including Newton's own niece Grace, who is only fifteen. So Newton strikes a deal: he won’t divulge the diary if he's accepted into the Royal Society. Hooke, worried that his personal as well as professional standing will be ruined by the diary, has to make up his mind about what to do.

The rest of the story covers his decision and how it affects young Isaac. The play had some potential to unfold like Amadeus, another tale of older and younger geniuses at war, but that never panned out.

The story is part of an association the theater has with the Alfred Sloan Foundation to produce plays about science. Newton, who once smashed a child’s head into a wall and believed that God spoke through him, seemed a good choice for a sturdy drama because he was an intense, deeply religious, and possibly asexual man (he even suffered two nervous breakdowns). At the same time, he became one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. Hooke, an overlooked seventeenth-century scientific star, explained combustion, designed an artificial respirator, helped to found the field of meteorology, studied fossils, designed a primitive model of what would later become the telephone, explained elasticity and helped re-design much of London after the Great Fire of 1666 ruined large sections of it in the middle of the seventeenth century.

The problem is that playwright Lucas Hnath doesn't tell much about either man, or what he did, or what London was like in 1665, when the plague was killing thousands. All of that would have made this a better play.

There are positives, like (most of) the acting. Director Linsay Firman gets a tremendous performance from Michael Seragin-Wells as Hooke and fine work from Jeff Biehl as the narrator and Kristen Bush as Catherine. Haskell King is a disappointment as Isaac Newton, though. He plods along as the fabled scientist, showing little curiosity or personal spark. He needs to put more life into Newton, who comes off as a rather flat historical icon.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Ensemble Studio Theater and the Alfred Sloan Foundation. Sets: Nick Francone; Costumes: Suzanne Chesney; Lighting: Les Dickert; Sound: Shane Rettig. The play is directed by Linsay Firman. Through February 24.