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Aisle View: Information Overload

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The set is a cube, with receding walls, ceiling and floor comprised of graph-paper squares. Two actors are on stage. One asks the other to share the secret, she finally whispers the secret. Blackout, flashing lights, sound of rain. Lights up on a grandma-type in curlers and a slacker-type eating cereal arguing about a census form or something. Blackout, flashing lights, sound of birds chirping. Lights up on two teenagers on a quilt on the floor, comparing notes on a mutual idol and reaching despair when neither can remember "his favorite smell." Blackout, flashing lights, sound of echoing hallways. Lights up on two interrogators in army boots, discussing how to get their prisoner to talk. Blackout, flashing lights, sound of birds. Lights up on two 20-somethings on a first-date picnic, falling in love as she feeds him information about her job. She tests and kills baby chickens, slices their brains, and plots thought patterns. Blackout, flashing lights, sound of. . . .

Need we go on? I don't and won't, but you will need to if you find yourself sitting at the Minetta Lane Theatre. 110 minutes-worth, with no intermission and -- given the layout of the auditorium -- no easy egress. This is Caryl Churchill, as progressive theatergoers might have guessed. Love and Information is her new play, which opened at the Royal Court in September 2012 and is being presented here with an American cast but the same director (James Macdonald), scenic designer (Miriam Buether) and sound designer (Christopher Shutt). This is an off-site production of the New York Theatre Workshop, presumably due to stage-space considerations.

Churchill has her vehement fans, and I expect they will look at this episodic ramble and proclaim it a masterpiece (or, more precisely, another masterpiece). They are absolutely right, I guess, from their perspective. Churchill is making her points on love and information -- both together and separate -- in our society. She does so in a succession of 50 quick sketches, mostly in the one-to-two minute range although there are some one-liners that flit by in 15 seconds. The great merit of 50, lightning quick episodes -- in this case, anyway -- is no matter how disinterested you might be in one, there's always something else coming along immediately.

Some do, clearly, address the subject of love; others discuss information, although any discourse whatsoever can be seen as information, can't it? Others -- like the one with the man in a paisley dress and go-go girl wig who dances while a dumpy woman in nebbishy clothes looks on until her mustache starts to detach -- don't seem to fit the theme, exactly. Quite a few address mental illness and/or technology. One suspects that the playwright intends the data presented in this patchwork to build as the play progresses, allowing the observer to piece things together and reach their own individual "ah ha!" moment. This is likely to be the case for some audience members, and more power to them. But not for me.

It is difficult to assess the performers, as there is no character listing and nothing connecting the actors from sketch to sketch. You don't even realize how many there are until the last scene -- a two-person scene, actually -- in which 15 Equity members are crowded onto the small stage. A few are allowed to stand out: stage veteran Maria Tucci, who has a very good scene folding clothing of perhaps a deceased spouse; Noah Galvin, as a teenager whose older sister tells him that he is her son (the sister/mother is good, too, but I have no means of identifying her); Lucas Caleb Rooney, as a man who is terrified by and unable to remember his wife (the wife is good, too, but I have no means of identifying her); and Jennifer Ikeda, who is especially enjoyable in the final scene.

The star of the show, though, is probably the stage manager. The set remains the same, but there are myriad props and pieces of furniture that need to placed and struck over and over and over again. They also need to have the right actors in the right place in the right costumes at the right moment. At the preview attended, this was handily done without a hitch or a moment's pause. The program credits Christine Catti and her assistant Alison DeSantis as stage managers, and there were times during Love and Information when I'd rather have been watching from the wings.

The final scene -- which is one of the longest -- presents a woman being drilled for some type of high-stakes trivia contest (either high school or television, it seems). She answers far-ranging questions, visibly struggling but always coming through. (Q: What is the formula that disproves Godels' theorem? A: X bracket a over t minus pi sigma close bracket to the power of 10 minus n to the power of minus one squared.) Her partner, in the midst of these tense questions, asks do you love me? This is the hardest question of all, and that's the whole play right there in a nutshell. Churchill makes us sit for 108 minutes, though, until she gets to it.