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Mystery Science Theater 2000

As a believable story, Arthur Kopit's "Y2K" does not compute; Tina Landau's New Agey view of the galaxies, "Space," is full of black holes.


Revenge of the nerd: Left to right, James Naughton, Patricia Kalember, and Erik Jensen in Y2K.  

Virtue mismanaged can be just as dangerous as vice. Two new plays, Arthur Kopit's Y2K and Tina Landau's Space, address the related fields of technology and science, and make a hash of them. Kopit deals with the peril of computer hackers invading our privacy via the Internet; Landau, with astrophysics and the possibility of worlds elsewhere. Both have laudable aims, both attempt to extend the range of theater, and both are fiascoes.

Even the title Y2K is misleading. The subject is not the danger of computer glitches at millennium's end but the havoc a hacker can wreak in unsuspecting lives exposed to the amorality of a near-omnipotent machine in the wrong hands. Y2K may better stand for You Too, Kopit, as a respected playwright comes a cropper. Kopit began spectacularly as a Harvard undergraduate with Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad and confirmed his status most notably with Wings and the book for the musical Nine. He is also a terrific title-writer, as witness Oh Dad, etc., End of the World With Symposium to Follow, and the forthcoming Tom Swift and the Secrets of the Universe.

In Y2K, Joseph Elliot is a thriving Random House editor married to the beautiful Joanna, whose ex-husband is unsuccessfully stalking her, a minor annoyance to the Elliots. Suddenly a couple of FBI agents are puzzlingly investigating Joseph, which also proves a minor annoyance. And slinking around the edges of the Elliots' lives is young Costa Astrakhan, whom the program misspells as Costra, another minor annoyance. Astrakhan, though, will become a major one.

As the opening stage direction describes him, "Astrakhan (a.k.a. ISeeU, BCuzICan, and FlowBare) . . . is 19, but . . . looks so wasted and haunted that were we told he was in his middle twenties, we wouldn't be surprised." Problem: Erik Jensen, who plays him, looks 25 without being wasted, except by being in this play. Nor is his hair neon blue as specified (although his rumpled and bespectacled peaked cap is awesome).

He speaks: "Though you think you see me now . . . you do not. . . . I am everywhere -- on the outskirts of your mind, in the ether, in the darkness. And when I'm on the hunt, as relentless as the wrath of God." Since the play thrives on ambiguity, he may even be a jaundiced view of the Prime Mover.

As a brilliant student in Joseph's New School writing class, Astrakhan (the name derives from an astrakhan hat Mrs. Kopit purchased) was invited to the house, where he was smitten with Joanna. Ostensibly going to the bathroom, he opened the bedroom door and caught the changing Joanna nude. This, he says, started a protracted affair she only recently terminated, inducing him to subjugate the Elliots to his computerized whims. But as the Elliots recall it, he came to the house with all his classmates and remained totally unmemorable. Yet he somehow contrived to doctor stolen photographs and send them around. They make Joseph into a pedophile, and Joanna into a slut partying with her ex and two others. Joseph resigns his job, and he and Joanna, however protesting their innocence, must bow to Astrakhan's fiendish will.

We are, presumably, not to be sure what to believe. Though Astrakhan's claims seem preposterous (they include his being the near-aborted child of Joseph's first wife, who was dying of cancer), what about those photographs? However computer-generated, they presuppose access to certain actual pictures available only to an intimate. And Joseph, though no pedophile, is forced to reveal some failings. Nor can Joanna's scutcheon be squeaky clean.

The chief villain here is technology, or, at least, its malicious abusers. But aside from holes in the plot, Y2K is guilty of something worse: inability to create characters to empathize with. Astrakhan is irredeemably evil; the Elliots are glossy ciphers, whose brightly brittle prattle does not hide the vacuum at their core. James Naughton and Patricia Kalember, good actors, are stymied. Too bad that Mrs. Kopit did not buy a plain cloth hat; the villain might not have sported the exotic name Astrakhan, but the play might have been felt.

When Tina Landau directs or co-writes, she can do very well; in Space, alas, she is director and sole author. What results is not just twaddle like Y2K but stultifying, pretentious New Age drivel. It is about a scientist, Dr. Allan Saunders, professor of neuropsychiatry and part-time therapist, if that constitutes science. Three of his patients claim to have been abducted by aliens, which greatly impresses him. (Must not be a scientist after all.)

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