Somewhere in the Playwrights Horizons program notes, it says that The Debate Society (Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, writers; Oliver Butler, developer and director) have been working on this piece for seven years. I wish the results of all their time and effort had produced a more satisfying result. This tale of thwarted aspirations loosely ties together two family stories linked to the Chicago world’s fairs of 1893 and 1933. One of the plots involves a real person, Steele MacKaye, a flamboyant actor, playwright, producer and inventor of such theater innovations as folding seats and fireproof curtains. In 1893 MacKaye (Rocco Sisto) had grandiose plans to build the Spectatorium, a 12,000-seat theater filled with the latest in theatrical technology, to house an epic panorama about Columbus. Master electrician Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld) and his loyal assistant Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh) are working on the “mooncart,” a large contraption with hundreds of light bulbs that will provide the celestial climax of the Spectatorium show. He even brings it home so he can work on it at night. Hillary’s lively, attractive wife Adeline (Aya Cash) displays a keen interest in her husband’s work. The Panic of 1893 leads MacKaye’s investors to abandon him and the Spectatorium is never completed. The second story introduces us to Lou (Ken Barnett), an unsuccessful jingle writer who hopes to find work at the 1933 fair. His wife Ruth (Aya Cash again) struggles to keep the family from starving by working long shifts at a pancake house at the fair. Their 11-year-old son Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz) has his heart set on a stamp commemorating the Graf zeppelin. Out of desperation, Lou reluctantly seeks employment as a musician in a night club. The apartment Lou and family have rented is in the home formerly occupied by Hillary and Adeline. Their landlord is a mysterious figure who lives in the attic. In the play’s most implausible premise, the unfinished mooncart still sits in the living room. Things do not end happily for either family. The alternation of scenes between the two time periods is not really confusing, but produces a repeated loss of focus. Just as the aspirations of almost everyone in the play are not achieved, neither are the aspirations of the play’s creators. Despite the fine acting, impressive set design by Laura Jellinek, great period costumes by Michael Krass and an amazing lighting design by Russell H. Champa, the play fizzles rather than sizzles. I would have preferred a play about the fascinating life of Steele MacKaye. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.
Seating alert: During a few short scenes, the actors are in the wide aisle between rows D and E. If your seat is in rows A through D, be prepared to twist around in your seat to see the action.