The Face of the Other

11/17/2014 05:20 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Who isn't yearning for a precious week in the summer at a cabin in the woods, off-line with a lake, a book and a Pendleton blanket? Heck, who doesn't have a shred of nostalgia for the simple pause of looking into another's eyes instead of finding heads turned to iPhones when we walk down the street? Remember when you once had to decide whether to acknowledge the other's face, to look away or to stare (the French do this on the metro quite well)? Thankfully the theater, like the church, mosque, temple, yoga class or cabin in the woods, allows us to tune off screens and contemplate that space where the self faces the other.

How do we respond to the face of the other -- the person we encounter not as some projection of ourselves but as unique? This ethical question underpins the writings of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995). It's also a question at the heart of a terrific play I just saw. Since I left David Auburn's Lost Lake, I have been thinking about Levinas and the role of kindness to the other, especially when that person intrudes and refuses to satisfy. Auburn's play takes us not only to a cabin without Wi-Fi and phone service, but also to the core of what it means to "be": to encounter another person as a unique other. It puts two strangers together and explores how unexpected kindnesses can emerge.

Reading Levinas' Basic Philosophical Writings can be tough-going - not necessarily standard fare of bedside reading after a long day. In my admittedly limited understanding of Levinas, the philosopher prioritizes an ethical scenario that lies at the heart of existence. In the face of an Other in need, do we respond with kindness?

There are people asking for kindness everywhere, especially in New York City. For the past two years as I walk to yoga class, I've passed a 20-something gal who crouches with a cardboard note and a tin cup in front of the coffee shop and the Mormon Church on 65th Street and Columbus Avenue. "A little kindness goes a long way," her sign reads. A young man, who sat alongside her in an adjacent sleeping bag, has since moved on. How do I respond? Daily solicitations ask me for help to treat Ebola, cure cancer, fund women's rights, educate underserved children, stop slavery, and support the arts. With the demands and concerns about family, work pressures, and the aches and pains of an aging body, how can we best live ethically?

I could write tomes about ways in which I have felt the unkindness of people. I expect most of us could quickly write a list of wrongs we've incurred. Which is why the play Lost Lake is so exceptional. Rather than preach morality from a platform, Lost Lake takes us right into the heart of this question: How to be with a stranger and find kindness in that encounter, as one simultaneously experiences one's own problems? From the simple act of whether to offer a sandwich to someone who is hungry to the larger question of who deserves your last dollar (even if stolen or borrowed), this play puts two strangers together in a cabin in the woods. It lets two different and unknown people truly be - and remain - other to each other. Lost Lake resists expectations, the conventions of violence or romance whereby one dominates or merges with the other. It refuses to "fill in" with simplifying explanatory backstories. Instead, the play carefully opens a space that explores a series of how moments of discomfort - when a character faces the uniqueness and difference of another - allow characters to grow. In turn the audience faces raw humanity, providing a kind of live access to the insights of Levinas. Lost Lake brings the audience into an intimacy created between two strangers. They manage to listen and hear - and yet still remain other to the other. Their relationship resists easy answers, dominance and narcissistic forms of love. I left the theater with renewed optimism about the potential to hear the story of a stranger.

I only wish some reviewers could take the time to hone their abilities to listen to the other and the unfamiliar. If Levinas and Aristotle were required reading for critics and reviewers, then we might have more humanity in the writing that follows the great catharsis of the theater -- that is, the "theater" of subjective reviewers who filter or screen our process of facing the unknown other on the stage.