‘Isaac’s Eye’ at Writers: In genius’ rarefied realm, Newton’s high-flying boy meets Captain Hooke
By Lawrence B. Johnson
As a clinical study of narcissism, even autism, in a budding young genius, Lucas Hnath’s play “Isaac’s Eye,” an imaginary clash between the obscure 25-year-old Isaac Newton and the celebrated British scientist Robert Hooke, is clever and sometimes brilliant theater. But as drama, it comes off at Writers Theatre as, well, a clinical study.
Country lad Isaac Newton – an astoundingly original thinker blessed with rare powers of scientific observation and analytical skills — wants more than anything to get to London, gain acceptance into the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge and achieve the fame he’s confident must come to him.
So this complete unknown writes to Robert Hooke asking for his help in gaining admission to the Royal Society. When Hooke doesn’t reply, Newton sends another letter, then another with examples of his work on the physics of light. That’s when Hooke has an aha moment, or rather more like whoa – because the great scientist has been pursuing very similar experiments. Hooke decides to seek out this impressive young competitor and size him up. And thus two huge egos collide.
What’s immediately appealing about Lucas Hnath’s play – and performances by Jürgen Hooper as Newton and Marc Grapey as Hooke – is the sharply delineated personalities behind two towering scientific minds.
Hooper’s young gun comes on with an innate intellectual swagger, not bothering with deference toward England’s greatest scientific thinker. Indeed, this petulant kid might not even make that concession. Yet the volatile, even childish Newton also reduces all of life’s complexities to the lowest egocentric denominator. When things go his way, he emits a high, thin “Yay!”
Hooke may be just an older, somewhat calcified version of his testy adversary; life has brought him the opportunities the younger genius now covets. But make no mistake, Grapey’s Hooke is a man of the world, king of the hill, master of all masters. In their introductory throw-down, Grapey, wry and world-weary and sounding not a little like Indiana Jones, enumerates Hooke’s staggering accomplishments, then dryly asks his would-be rival: “What have you done?”
And Newton has a stopper of an answer: He says that by inserting a needle into the tear duct of his eye, then pressing the eyeball, he has been able to ascertain the hitherto unknown structure of light. And so begins a new level of gamesmanship that turns nasty when Newton unearths a mortifying secret about Hooke, who in turn comes up with some stunning information of his own.
Caught in the middle is the historical – albeit dramatically adapted – figure of Catherine, a local apothecary 10 years Newton’s senior who has long dreamed of a marriage with the younger man and the home and children that would go with it. As Catherine, Elizabeth Ledo offers a sober, gentle woman whose burden of regret is exacerbated by the dread of what’s to come in her solitary life.
Self-centered, single-minded, needy Isaac Newton does not appear to be her salvation. But you never know. When the playwright takes us on a late excursion into the realm of surrealism, the bend of light may illuminate a new Newton – a happy prospect not only for Catherine but also for this supercharged kid whose brilliance does not extend to human interaction.
Yet everyone in sight is playing an angle, Catherine no less than the sparring geniuses. Everyone, that is, except for the narrator (LaShawn Banks), who helps us sort through the playwright’s flights of fancy by listing historical facts on a blackboard and noting the stuff that’s just made up. Banks makes a funny tour leader for this foray back to the 17th century — in modern dress and language. One might question, however, whether the narrator’s usefulness measures up to his amusement value.
Direct Michael Halberstam keeps this talky play moving at a human pulse, not too fast to absorb the edged exchanges between Hooper’s impulsive Newton and Grapey’s flinty Hooke. Designer Collette Pollard’s minimal set allows these larger-than-life characters to fill the tiny space of Writers’ black box in Glencoe at Books on Vernon.
In the end, one is left wondering whether all the wit and conniving add up to much more than a shaggy dog story, or perhaps a snapshot of genius in an unflattering pose.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Writers’ complete 2014-15 season: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com