Isaac Newton at 25 is a charmingly disagreeable dude. In his new play Isaac's Eye at Ensemble Studio Theater, this is how playwright Lucas Hnath portrays the famous man, not with intimidating powers or powdered wigs. Quite the opposite. Isaac Newton in his 20s already had white hair and apparently went around mumbling about incomprehensible properties of light and ether whose existence he had induced. Driven by the belief that God gave him glimpses of scientific knowledge, Newton threatened to burn down his parents' house if they did not let him pursue his somewhat sacriligeous studies. This is the man who is also known to have stuck a needle in his eye, and no one knows why. So, in this brilliant new play which is very aware of its own fictionality, we get some ideas about a pivotal time in Newton's life and spend some hair-raising time with the famous needle.
It is a bare set (designed by Nick Francone) with some blackboards and slate walls. Jeff Biehl (the Actor) enters to give some straightforward background information about young Isaac Newton. He reminds us time and again that if something stated is a fact, he will write it on the blackboard. Thence unfolds a story about Isaac (Haskell King) and a lovely 35 year-old apothecary's daughter named Catherine (Kristen Bush) at a juncture when the budding scientist might have married Catherine and become a farmer. Equally improbable are Newton's chances of entering the Royal Academy, since the then-prominent scientist Robert Hooke (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells) may have been working on similar discoveries. Hooke comes to visit Newton in the country, where the young man labors on unaware that Leibniz already invented Calculus (but please take this, too, with a grain of salt).
Suzanne Chesney has costumed these characters in refreshingly normal modern clothes. They speak quite directly about the things they want; Hooke, noted for doing experiments where he blew down a tube into a dog's throat until the lungs exploded (another "fact") keeps a sex diary (extant) which Newton steals. The two argue over theories of the nature of light until Hooke drags in a dying plague victim (also Jeff Biehl) on whom they experiment and who they hope can settle the issue. The debate could go either way, and no one knows exactly what happened between Newton, Catherine, and Hooke. But I was very scared when the needle came out.
Haskell King plays the self-absorbed young man very well. Kristen Bush completely nails the role of the powerful young woman druggist. Michael Louis Serafin-Wells is wonderful as the succesful older man who,like many, had a penchant for opium and being in love with his own niece. Jeff Biehl remains calm throughout; an amazing feat which brings us back to reality (and we get the show programs, including an outline of facts about Newton, only at the end of the show).
Director Linsay Firman makes the two hours of this very human conflict fly by at the speed of...."Needle consultant" Eric Walton also gets credit in my book for increasing the tension in the piece, and for having a cool job description. If you think you might like this show, you should look into the E.S.T. and Sloan Foundation-commissioned First Light series of science plays, now through March 5th.