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Opinion Review: A species on the brink in 'secret life of humans'

NEW YORK — Subjects of obvious topical immediacy are few in “Secret Life of Humans,” the brooding new play of ideas at 59E59 Theaters.

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Review: A species on the brink in 'secret life of humans' play

Review: A species on the brink in 'secret life of humans'

(NY Times)
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Yet this multilayered drama, which opened Thursday night as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is asking exactly the questions that need to be asked at this perilous moment in history.

Such as: Is the progress of the homo sapiens destined to proceed in an upward line of self-betterment? Or could we have brought ourselves blindly and instinctively to the edge of our own extinction, and is it still possible to turn back?

Ava (Stella Taylor), a professor who serves as our sometime narrator and cold-eyed tour guide into the shadows of our collective past, says she doesn’t believe in fate, but she does believe in inevitability. And “Secret Life” leaves us in the shadow of the possibility that we’re all marching in predetermined lock step straight off the edge of a cliff.

Not that this 80-minute production — written by David Byrne, who also directed, with Kate Stanley — is outright pessimistic. Nor, while you’re watching it, is this hybrid of college lecture and dramatic demonstration all that irresistibly compelling.

But it plants seeds of thought that keep growing in your imagination, while making you provocatively self-conscious about who you are, not as an individual but as a part of that race of striving, self-deluding two-legged beings who have been walking this planet for many millenniums.

Seen in Edinburgh last summer, “Secret Life of Humans” is inspired by two works of popular science from different eras: Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man,” a documentary television series first seen in 1973, and Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” a best-selling book published in English in 2014.

The perspectives embodied in these anthropological overviews exist in implicit dialogue here. Ava has absorbed the darker vision of humanity’s future proposed by Harari.

Jacob Bronowski, embodied by the actor Richard Delaney, is allowed to present his own, more hopeful case, as the play — and Ava — travel backward in time. (There is also video footage of a 1974 interview of Bronowski by Michael Parkinson.) Jacob is further represented in the 21st century by his grandson Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker) who winds up on a Tinder-made date with Ava in London.

Jamie never met his famous grandfather. But he has inherited the house in which Jacob lived. That’s where he brings Ava for what turns out to be a night not only of sex but also of sleuthing into his grandfather’s past.

Jacob, it seems, kept one room in his house as a locked sanctuary, where he stored documents having to do with his hitherto undisclosed work for the British government during World War II. And as Ava and Jamie go through these papers, Jacob comes alive for the audience, as does his wife, Rita (Olivia Hirst), and his onetime collaborator, George (Andy McLeod).

These stories-within-stories are framed by Ava’s direct addresses to the audience, which assumes the role of her students. And every so often, Hirst and McLeod will materialize as prehistoric figures, ancestors to us all, who left the earliest known footprints on Earth.

In the watching, “Secret Life” is surprisingly easy to follow, if not always to swallow. Its credibility-straining elements are not its academic theories, but its more conventional contrivances of plot.

These include Ava winding up on a random date with Jamie, who potentially holds the key (literally) to her future success as a scholar. And the flashback scenes to the mid-20th century have the oddly ingenuous quality of great-man biographies for young readers.

But the cast is more than solid, and the characters they play are drawn with nonjudgmental ambivalence. Delaney’s Jacob is a robust figure of depleting contradictions, struggling to will himself into a positive assessment of a world he knows firsthand is capable of wholesale destruction.

More daringly, Ava — the character we are meant to feel closest to — is not only an expounder of theories of Darwinian selfishness; she also embodies them in the choices she makes. Such behavior guarantees that “Secret Life” is not one of those scientific docudramas of wonder-struck uplift.

Yet wonder there is in this production. Jen McGinley’s set consists largely of bookcases, filled with battered volumes that bespeak endless use, that are magically reconfigured to expedite the play’s journeys into the deep past. Catherine Webb’s lighting, Zakk Hein’s projections and Yaiza Varona’s sound design and music combine to lift us outside of time.

But the show’s greatest coup de theatre involves those footprints I mentioned earlier. And the image of an anonymous man and a woman progressing toward an unknown destination — stopped in their tracks by a forever mysterious sight — becomes a rich and haunting metaphor for the continuing journey of the species that, for better or worse, is ourselves.

“Secret Life of Humans”

Through July 1 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

Credits: By David Byrne; directed by David Byrne and Kate Stanley; devised by the company; dramaturge, Kate Bassett; costumes by Ronnie Dorsey; lighting by Catherine Webb; projections by Zakk Hein; sound and music by Yaiza Varona; sets by Jen McGinley; aerial design by John Maddox; production stage manager, Helen Matravers. Presented by 59E59 Theaters for Brits Off Broadway.

Cast: Stella Taylor (Ava), Andrew Strafford-Baker (Jamie), Richard Delaney (Jacob Bronowski), Olivia Hirst (Rita Bronowski) and Andy McLeod (George).

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

BEN BRANTLEY © 2018 The New York Times

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