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Know-Brainers

Two remarkable new plays from the Manhattan Theatre Club: In one, science itself is in danger; in the other, amnesia proves to be a blessing.

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Dissimilar daughters: Ana Reeder (left) and Clea Lewis in Air Pump.  

The larking good news is that the Manhattan Theatre Club has two fine plays on right now. On Stage One, we get Shelagh Stephenson's An Experiment With an Air Pump, which deals with two groups of people in the same house in 1799 and 1999. One of the latter is descended from the former, and something strange connects the two groups. "Aha," you say, "she got that from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia." Yes, and she makes no bones about it. In 1799, the younger generation is staging a homemade play wherein one girl represents Arcadia; could an homage be plainer? But haven't playwrights been borrowing from one another at least since the new kid on the block cannibalized Thomas Kyd? Moreover, if there can be in music variations on a theme by Corelli, why not variations in drama on a theme by Stoppard?

Stephenson does a good job, which is what matters. Her play concerns stubborn problems: head versus heart, art versus science, the souring of love in marriage, the tantalizing survival of the past, and the transience or persistence of both fame and infamy. I just said that Stephenson makes no bones about something; but she does have the 1999ers discover under their house a set of bones from a hasty 1799 burial, and thereby hangs a heart-breaking tale the moderns cannot decipher.

In the Newcastle home of Dr. Joseph and the erudite but unfulfilled Susannah Fenwick live also their daughters, Maria and Harriet. Two young scientists, the ruthless Armstrong and the principled Roget (future father of the thesaurus) are regular guests. For it is here that the playwright imagines the famous Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society to have met, and she has much fun inventing absurd titles for their papers. In 1999, the house is being sold by a descendant of the Fenwicks, Ellen, a geneticist wooed by a company experimenting with human pre-embryos, and her husband, Tom, a lit-prof. victim of downsizing, leery of putting down embryos.

In 1799, we hear people rioting outside for cheaper fish prices, even as the Fenwick circle hopes for better centuries to come. In 1999, Tom and Phil, a repairman, regret the selling of the house to a corporation, while Ellen has doubts about the biological-engineering job offered by Kate, a younger colleague, a scientist as heartless now as Armstrong was back then. Tom, tortured by unemployment, is even more skeptical about that job. Outer and inner turmoil cross over the centuries in chiastic form; the new millennium, foreseen in 1799 and accosted in 1999, holds out scant chiliastic promise.

The play's title derives from a famous old painting (shown onstage) depicting a group watching a scientific experiment; the onstage events both mirror and acridly reverse the painted situation. Stephenson's writing is literate yet straightforward, as when Tom exclaims, "I am going to sail into the twenty-first century as a middle-aged redundant man supported by a younger, sexier wife who works at the cutting edge of technology. Maybe there's a sort of poetic justice to it." If the justice in Air Pump is only poetic, the poetry is decidedly just, as in the simple but poignant 1799 toast "to a future we dream about but cannot know."

The comedy in 1799 circles around Harriet's silly play, with the girl smarting from writerly inadequacy and hopelessly wanting to be a doctor. Also around the awkward letters from and to her Indian-army fiancé read out by Maria before a moving curtain, behind which scenes and epochs change. The sadness is in Susannah's frustration and the dread fate that befalls Isobel, the Fenwicks' Scottish maid, a highly intelligent, hunchbacked autodidact. Out of all these threads, the author weaves a carpet whose figures we must detect if we are to discern the patterns of time and history, and our own share in them.

Christopher Duva's Roget, Jason Butler Harner's Armstrong and Phil, Ana Reeder's Harriet and Kate, and Clea Lewis's Maria (if you don't mind her looks of an anorectic Bette Midler) are all good. Even better are Daniel Gerroll's Joseph and Tom, Linda Emond's Susannah and Ellen, and Seana Kofoed's Isobel. The play has discreetly dextrous staging by Doug Hughes, masterly décor by John Lee Beatty, subtle costumes by Catherine Zuber, telling music by David Van Tieghem, and lighting by Brian MacDevitt to take your breath away.

On Stage Two is Fuddy Meers, which sounds Mother Goosy but is a deftly zany absurdist comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire, a young but already much-produced playwright. The heroine, Claire, suffers from psychogenic amnesia, waking up every morning as a blank slate, on which her husband and Kenny, her teenage son from a former marriage, must imprint the facts of her life, only to have her forget them overnight. So, of a morning, we get: "Richard: My name is Richard Fiffle, and I'm your husband. Claire: You are? My goodness. Richard: Don't be alarmed. Claire: Who's that boy? Richard: That's your son. Claire: Really? He's very big. How much did he weigh at birth?" That last line, in its sublime incongruity yet eccentric pertinence, bespeaks real talent.

Shown a snapshot of a "pathetically sad-looking woman" in which she doesn't recognize herself, Claire is told, "It's an old photo, before you lost your memory." Viewing herself in a mirror, she comments, "Oh yes. I look much happier now, Philip." "Richard," her husband corrects her. While he takes a shower, Claire is politely abducted by a limping man who claims to be her brother Zach, out to save her from the evil Richard. He drives her to the home of Gertie, her mother and his, if he really is Zach.

Gertie has had a stroke, leaving her with impaired speech. She'll say, "I coo tah den. Bach den evabidy onion stammy," which means, "I could talk then. Back then everybody understood me." The audience, like the other characters, can sometimes unriddle these enigmatic utterances, sometimes not. This proves hilarious, without cruelty to stroke victims, any more than to amnesiacs and limpers. In an absurdist world, there is no real suffering, and thus no injured feelings.


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