A New Theory of Vision
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 28, 2009
The most striking thing about Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre's A New Theory of Vision is its truly cool, high-tech design. Production designer George Allison, video designer Jonathan Arthur Ashley, director Cat Parker, and technical director Nathan McKinney have accomplished, on an indie theater budget, something that eluded the design team of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White a couple of seasons back—immersing the characters and story of this intriguing play in a virtual world in a way that feels both original and organic.
It helps that the play itself trades in the idea of a virtual/alternate reality in which its protagonist finds himself stuck. Lee Krebs is a college philosophy professor who needs to find a sexy new project in order to maintain his tenure. When Erich Danton, a student of his who is some sort of computer programming savant (and also a person with Asperger's Syndrome), brings Lee his idea of a Second Life-ish virtual world that he has invented, Lee sees a solution to his problem. Professor and student begin to collaborate, but the consequences of this collaboration prove dire. Erich has some kind of "incident" which lands him in the hospital, while Lee winds up obsessed with the virtual reality program, to the point where he gets lost in its "world," seemingly unable to return to normal life.
Bob Jude Ferrante's plotting is complicated and a bit fuzzy in places; I admit that I didn't completely understand how Erich's creation works, or why it could serve as a legitimate philosophy project, or how Lee gets caught up in it. Nevertheless, the general concept is fascinating and the show's design encapsulates it in an elegant and arresting manner. Throughout, the various scenic designs are projected onto the rear wall of the stage. Panels contained in the wall open and sometimes revolve to enable smooth and fast transitions. The technique of this production design isn't completely perfected yet: there are places where the projections land on the actors and the set pieces on the stage proper. But most of the time, the design is seamless and beautiful; and in the scenes set in the virtual world where Lee ends up, it is dazzling and appropriate.
Parker keeps the pace moving, and the cast does generally good work under her direction. The most memorable characterization comes from Matt Steiner, who makes Erich a rich and interesting young man whom we want to know much more about. (Steiner is also very convincingly 16.) Maeve Yore works hard to make Cara, Erich's therapist/counselor (who is also the wife of Lee's boss) into a believable character, but the role feels underwritten. Eric Percival doesn't seem old enough for the 40-ish Lee.
The ambition of this show—on the part of its author as well as its director and design team—probably exceeds what can be accomplished in an off-off-Broadway showcase presentation. But we can hope that all will have opportunities to explore their ideas in the future, especially the genuinely inventive notions of Allison and Ashley.