Love and Information could go by many titles. Feeling and Knowing, perhaps, or Experience and Science, or Right Brain and Left Brain. Each of these pairings suggests, albeit less elegantly, the paradox that British playwright Caryl Churchill has used her new play to explore. How, this play asks, do we handle the gap between knowing the world and living in it? She approaches the problem like a dedicated curator, collecting a large and varied sample and, eschewing narrative of any kind, lining them up like butterflies in a case, grouping them by type and then arranging them for tone, rhythm, and color. Love and Information is this simple, and yet, in the manner of the best science museum exhibit, surprisingly fascinating, fun, and personally revealing.
In the course of an intermission-less two hours, Love and Information’s company of 15 actors present 57 scene-lets, most of which involve two characters, none of whom we meet again. The performers must evoke, in as little as 30 seconds, entire relationships, sometimes with deep personal histories and other times between strangers, but in each case teasing us with complete dramatic worlds we’re never allowed to fully enter.
But it’s not the conventional drama that concerns Churchill here. Instead, it’s an essential ingredient of the dramatic art, the sometimes uncomfortable, nearly always kinetic confrontation between ideas (abstract concepts, opinions, fantasies, facts) and the people who have to do something with them. One woman tells her lover that sex is essentially the transferring of genetic information, to which he responds in shock: “You don’t think that while we’re doing it, do you?” Two friends fight about psychoanalysis, and one tells the other to “take it to your analyst and have it turned into meaning!” A patient receives a terminal diagnosis from her doctor. A woman refuses to fill out her census form. A man with prosopagnosia can’t remember his wife’s face. Each of these is a scenario in which knowledge shakes people up, spins them around, forces them to confront the world and themselves in ways they never imagined.
James Macdonald, a veteran Churchill director, turns a play that’s intellectually interesting but potentially tedious into a funny, vivacious, and often tender cornucopia of human experience. The scenes are separated by blackouts and different soundscapes (sound design by Christopher Shutt) that prevent each set of characters from blurring into the next. Against this conceit and Miriam Buether’s bright and simple set design, four receding walls lined with graph paper, we enter each scenario as seriously and freshly as a new play.
For their part, the 15 performers make a capable ensemble. With each actor showing off his or her range of flat character types, the evening can occasionally feel like an MFA acting class’s showcase. Karen Kandel and Randy Danson stand out, for me, for the poise and calm they bring to their performances. Neither aims to impress, and for that achievement they each bring a refreshing presence to the stage. Kellie Overbey is similarly effective by bringing a comedienne’s confidence to her characters.
I’ve long found Churchill’s sensibility to be brutally brilliant, but somehow cold and detached, like she’s writing with her lab coat on. The schematic structure of the play risks a similar fate, and but in catching us mortals in one of our more vulnerable veins, Churchill reveals an unmasked and unpretentious humanity. She makes lyrical irony out of our inability to make sense of our universe, even as we haplessly and relentlessly keep trying. After many decades of poking at the dark underbelly of our chaotic and often criminal civilization, she seems to have found a renewed capacity for forgiveness.
Love and Information runs at New York Theatre Workshop until March 23.