Mystery Science Theater 2000

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

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.)

He seeks out the university’s astronomer, Dr. Bernadette Jump Cannon. She is an attractive, elegant woman, although her assistant, Carl Himayo, is a shaggy hippie, seemingly more suited to astrology. Dr. Allan thinks he has met Dr. Bernadette before (in a previous existence, it is strongly implied). Dr. B. and Carl are waiting for word from other worlds: He keeps staring at his computer; she gazes, mostly with the naked eye, into that eponymous Space. Though thus far unconfirmed, their faith is strong and infects Dr. A. He is told not to expect little green men with transparent heads (too bad – they might have enlivened the play) but to entertain possibilities. Unfortunately, possibilities are much more easily entertained than audiences.

A wan romance develops between Drs. A. and B. It is constantly waylaid by those three patients messing with Dr. A.’s head, fancy slide projections on the theater’s back wall, an angel-like creature flitting about and singing musical-comedy ditties here out of place (or is it space?). Moreover, Dr. A. is made into a jumping jack full of contortions, dithers, and grimaces, and Dr. B. suffers from lupus, which carries her off in the very observatory where the two have just spent an idyllic night, stargazing and spouting highfalutin rubbish.

But fear not: Dr. B. dies beautifully, fading into a great white light, and Dr. A. is hardly bereaved, unless spouting even higher-falutin and longer-winded claptrap is a brand of bereavement. Here the text goes into free verse: “Yes. I was abducted – and they led me to her, and she led me here, to Space. / Bernadette told me there is a star for everyone who has died. (Allan … throws something into the black space – a star appears in the sky.) And there are more stars in our galaxy than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. (He throws another star… .) And atoms just move from one thing to the next. / And it goes on and on and on.” If by “it” the play is meant, that is certainly so.

After his projectiles have yielded “millions of stars” blazing on the back wall, Dr. A. and the play conclude: “Either the universe is teeming with life and we are not alone / Or there is no other life in the universe and we are alone. / Either way, the notion is remarkable. / Either way, what is out there is bound to be … beautiful.” He is left standing and gaping upward in wonder, as we are left sitting and gaping ahead in utter disbelief.

Tina Landau is not alone to blame. As Dr. A., Tom Irwin is probably the most obnoxious performer since Nero fiddled to the flames of Rome. The rest do well enough, and Amy Morton, as Dr. B., better than that. A program note names among the inspirers 21 such unlikely bedfellows as Gaston Bachelard and L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll and Dante, Richard Feynman and Portia Nelson, and unnamed “others.” It proves yet again how dangerous a little learning can be.

Marsha Norman wrote Getting Out and ’Night, Mother, which excuses much, but perhaps not her latest, Trudy Blue. A master of realism, Norman boldly resolved to try anti-naturalism here. So we get Ginger – supposedly a novelist, not a playwright, but we are not fooled that easily – struggling to create her latest heroine, the quasi-autobiographical Trudy Blue. She conducts lengthy duologues with Trudy, who, impudent thing, ballsily refuses to play ball, and strikes out on her own.

This would have been daringly innovative until 1921, when a certain Luigi Pirandello came out with Six Characters in Search of an Author. Ginger is also ailing from what may be fatal lung cancer or a diagnostic error, and her situation keeps drastically changing. Her doctor and nurse appear in clown getup, to give matters of life and death an absurdist glow.

A daughter and mother add to Ginger’s problems: a husband, pretending to care, is a monumental swine who goes fishing when his afflicted wife needs him most. The chief innovation here is the repetition of scenes with minor but supposedly significant differences, such as moving the room around for a new angle of vision. No one emerges very interesting, not even the swine, played cloddishly by John Dossett, possibly at the behest of the undistinguished director, Michael Sexton. The only saving graces are Polly Draper’s performance as Ginger and Mark Wendland’s décor, conjuring up in a tiny theater a world on scarcely more than the head of a pin.

Mystery Science Theater 2000