Lovesong of the Electric Bear
nytheatre.com review by Ben Trawick-Smith
July 13, 2010
British mathematician Alan Turing was one of the towering minds of the 20th century. During World War II, he saved countless lives by designing the machine that cracked the German Enigma code. This achievement is remarkable enough to qualify Turing as a genius, yet he is responsible for an even greater breakthrough: Turing arguably created the blueprint for the modern computer. In the 1930s, almost by accident, he discovered how binary code could be used to create intelligent machines. Without Turing, we would have no PCs, iPods, BlackBerrys, or Internet.
Turing was also openly gay at a time when English law still treated homosexuality as a crime. A logical thinker, Turing saw no justification for hiding his sexuality. While working in computer science after the war, he was arrested for "gross indecency" and sentenced to a regimen of chemically castrating drugs. When the hormone treatments damaged both his sex drive and intellect, Turing committed suicide by eating an apple laced with poison.
Turing's story is the stuff of Greek tragedy. The sheer strangeness of his brain was both the reason for his genius and the cause of his downfall. It took an unconventional mind to see how a series of 1s and 0s can mimic human thought, and an equally unconventional mind to assert one's sexual identity in a society where institutionalized homophobia was the norm. He was not only a hero in the struggle for LGBT rights, but an inspiration to free thinkers of all kinds.
The problem with Lovesong of the Electric Bear, a new play about Turing by Snoo Wilson, is that the playwright shoe-horns this near-operatic story into an ill-fitting, goofy narrative structure. Wilson's drama takes place beyond the grave, as Turing's childhood teddy bear, Porgy, takes him on a posthumous review of his own life. The play brusquely covers Alan's childhood, education, code-breaking for the government, work on computers at Manchester University, and the circumstances leading to his suicide.
Unfortunately, the teddy bear device is as cliched and awkward as it sounds. Wilson's reasons for using this structure are unclear. I suppose Porgy Bear is used to provide exposition and philosophical weight to the proceedings, but the character upstages the play's protagonist far too much. By the end of the evening it feels like we've watched Turing's story less than his imaginary friend's.
The real-life sections of the play similarly pull focus. Wilson stuffs so many scenes and characters into his script that, even at two-and-a-half-hours, the play feels rushed. He gives too much stage time to inconsequential anecdotes (a visit to a New York drag bar), or fantasy sequences (Turing's one-time fiancee magically appears as a fertility goddess). The stylistic shifts would be less of a problem if Turing were more of a participant in his own story, but he comes off as such a passive character that he often disappears from the action.
The director's note for the play states, "The tragic circumstances of Turing's death for years eclipsed his genius; Lovesong restores the balance." Strangely, however, Lovesong doesn't much explore the details of Turing's genius. His "Universal Machine" paper is hastily touched on, and the epiphanies he experienced as a code-breaker barely register. Part of the problem is that, since other characters often seem to speak on Turing's behalf, it is difficult to separate the main character's ideas from those of the playwright. I found myself wishing this Turing were more passionate, more loquacious, and frankly more sexual (given his fate, it is odd how little interaction we see between him and other gay men).
Fortunately, Potomac Theatre Project has mounted as handsome a production of Wilson's play as you could hope for. As Turing, Alex Draper captures the man's boyish, clown-like quality without relying on physical tics. Alex Cranmer is excellent in several roles, convincing as upper-crusters and cockney louts alike. Most noteworthy is Tara Giordano as Porgy. In less skilled hands this character could be grating, but this fine young actress manages to invest her role with indefatigable energy and humanity. Director Cheryl Faraone handles Wilson's dizzying script with precision, keeping the action moving forward seamlessly.
With Lovesong, Wilson tries to do something grand and theatrical with Turing's life, rather than regurgitating the mere facts. And while I admire his ambition, the show is an uncentered work that goes in too many directions to make an impact. There are fascinating ideas in the play, but they would benefit from a strong editorial hand. At present, the concept overwhelms the story.