57 Bits of Emotional Knowledge‘Love and Information,’ by Caryl Churchill, at Minetta Lane NYT Critics' PickBy BEN BRANTLEY
FEB. 19, 2014
Tell me. I want to know. I need to know. I have to know. Oh, I’m sorry you told me. I wish I didn’t know that.The impulses behind those sentences have animated every human being who has walked this planet. And the odds are that, in some form or another, those instincts percolate throughout your waking hours every day.It’s enough to keep any Homo sapiens’s head in full spin. Especially now, when the distribution and consumption of data have assumed the proportions of a Tower of Babel that seems ready to topple at any moment.Such is the dizzying premise behind “Love and Information,” the thought-churning, deeply poignant new play by Caryl Churchill, which opened on Wednesday night at the Minetta Lane Theater. Make that 57 — count ’em, 57 — plays, which occupy a concentrated two (uninterrupted) hours of stage time, with a cast of 15 embodying more than a hundred questioning, frustrated, fascinated characters.Leave it to Ms. Churchill to come up with a work that so ingeniously and exhaustively mirrors our age of the splintered attention span. Throughout her career, which covers more than four decades, this British playwright has proved herself without peer in creating expressly topical works in which form and function are one.PhotoLaunch media viewerJohn Procaccino and Kellie Overbey in “Love and Information,” the new Caryl Churchill play produced by the New York Theater Workshop. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York TimesBefore gender-bender became a garden variety classification, Ms. Churchill had written “Cloud 9” (1979), a comedy of endlessly mutating sexual identity. Stereotypes of women in power throughout the centuries collided and coalesced in her “Top Girls” (1982), while the internal combustion machine of big finance spewed out propulsive rhyming couplets in “Serious Money” (1987).For the contemporary dystopias of a planet plundered by environmental abuse and civil war, she created sui generis fairy tales, with their own darkly enchanted languages, in “The Skriker” (1994) and “Far Away” (2000). And the “special relationship” of Britain and the United States was translated into a two-character soap opera of sexual codependency in “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?” (2006).With “Love and Information,” which is directed by her frequent and inspired collaborator James Macdonald, Ms. Churchill matches style and content so closely that they become inseparable. Each of this work’s self-contained segments, some of which are only seconds long, deals with the ways we lust for, process and reject knowledge. At the same time, it teases, thwarts and gluts its audience’s capacity to assimilate the forms of information it considers.But though Miriam Buether’s single set is a forbiddingly scientific-looking white cube, this is no arid intellectual exercise that makes lab rats of us all. Don’t forget that love, as well as information, is part of the play’s title and that love comes first.It turns out that while this work has the intellectual vigor we expect of Ms. Churchill, it may also be her most sentimental play. It’s all about individuals trying to connect with and understand one another — ultimately in vain perhaps, but that’s just what makes such daily struggles heroic.On a scene-by-scene basis, this is also her most accessible play. I’d even go so far as to say that there’s not an original thought within any of this show’s individual segments. Each presents a situation that is likely to be familiar: a family gathered to watch home videos; friends debating the existence of God, or discussing natural disasters like tsunamis; a couple considering dinner plans. A more exotic moment, in which a man describes falling in love with a computer voice, brings to mind the current movie “Her,” and there are portraits of individuals grieving over loss and failure that could slide right into a Lifetime movie.Continue reading the main storyAnother helping of "Downton," M'Lord?On a Caribbean rum trailFor hints at Apple's plans, read its shopping listIt’s the multiplicity of these scenes and their fragmentary nature that make “Love and Information” so exhilarating and exhausting. As a whole, these parts compel us to think about the paradoxical variety and similarity in the ways we try to make sense of our universe and our place in it. And every little snippet of a play here leaves us wondering about what happened before and what happens after what we’ve seen.The first vignette portrays a man and a woman, caught in midconversation. She has a secret; he wants to hear it; she’s not sure that’s a good idea, but she finally whispers it to him. We’re not privy to what this secret is. But there’s no question that what the woman has said has effected a chemical change in their relationship. That’s what knowledge does.This scene gives us an introductory template for what follows, but it doesn’t begin to suggest the breadth into which the play stretches. The marvelously flexible performers — who come in an assortment of ages, shapes and skin tones — take turns embodying friends, lovers and strangers for whom knowledge is received and perceived quite differently.Some characters speak the language of science (like the woman working on a project that maps memory in chickens) and mathematics (like the man who ponders the philosophy of real numbers). Others talk in the easygoing shorthand of people who have known one another for a long time. Some are blessed with total recall, while others can’t remember who they are. There are scenes that are as contemporary as cellphones and Edward J. Snowden, and as eternal as humanity itself.Originally produced at the Royal Court Theater in London in 2012, “Love and Information” has been tweaked in this New York Theater Workshopproduction for an American cast and audience. It could probably be adapted into most idioms and cultures without radical rewriting. The languages with which we pursue and acquire information are many. The motivations for doing so are pretty much universal.In the sequence from which the play takes its title, a young woman excitedly describes the variable genetic science that gives us sex, as she and a young man rub suntan lotion onto each other.“You don’t think that while we’re doing it, do you?” he asks, slightly dismayed. Her answer: “It doesn’t hurt to know. Information and also love.”“If you’re lucky,” adds the young man. That postscript sums up this sharp-minded, tenderhearted play’s embrace of an ultimately random universe.Love and InformationBy Caryl Churchill; directed by James Macdonald; sets by Miriam Buether; costumes by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood; lighting by Peter Mumford; sound by Christopher Shutt; production stage manager, Christine Catti. Presented by New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Jeremy Blocker, managing director; Linda S. Chapman, associate artistic director; Larry K. Ash, production manager; in association with the Royal Court Theater. At the Minetta Lane Theater, 18 Minetta Lane, Greenwich Village; 800-982-2787, nytw.org. Through March 23. Running time: 2 hours.WITH: Phillip James Brannon, Randy Danson, Susannah Flood, Noah Galvin, Jennifer Ikeda, Karen Kandel, Irene Sofia Lucio, Nate Miller, Kellie Overbey, Adante Power, John Procaccino, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Maria Tucci, James Waterston and Zoë Winters.