- Chief New York Theatre Critic
It is difficult to parse David Byrne’s “Secret Life of Humans,” currently running at 59E59 Theaters, without issuing spoiler alerts. As the eighty-five-minute play unfolds, three “stories” – one lasting a single night, one across a lifetime, and one that spans humanity’s sixty-million-year history, collide in a cathartic resolution that jangles the senses. Inspired by Yuval Harari's “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” David Burns tackles the essential questions about science, philosophy, and what it means to be human. Produced previously at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Mr. Burns’ play arrives at 59E59 at part of its annual Brits Off Broadway series.
The characters are interesting enough and their conflicts drive a complex, multi-layered plot that begins strong in the first thirty minutes, but then becomes less focused and less engaging as the play winds down to its resolution. Lonely hearts Ava (Stella Taylor), an anthropology academic, and Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker), in town to clear out his recently deceased grandmother’s house, meet in a local restaurant after turning to Tinder to swipe away their solitude. Their one night together reveals the power of greed and the longing for meaningful relationships.
David Byrne’s script is non-linear and traverses past and present in what seems seamless transitions in space and time. The playwright and Kate Stanley co-direct the piece with a keen eye for detail and connection. Ava serves as the “narrator” between scenes and breaks the fourth wall bringing the audience into her lecture hall at the university where she is about to lose her position. So, meeting Jamie is fortuitous since his grandfather Jacob Bronowski (Richard Delaney) narrated the popular BBC television series “The Ascent of Man” and left all records of his “secret” research with mathematician George (Andy McLeod) locked up in an alarmed room in the house Jamie is about to clear out.
Mr. Byrnes’ script does address the promised issues of the ascent of man, including snippets of BBC’s Michael Parkinson’s 1970s interviews with Jamie’s grandfather who affirmed the constant upward progression of human development. Without disclosing the secret in his locked room, Bronowski also was concerned about a specific event in modern history that just might disrupt man’s ascent. Jamie proffers his own theory about humankind’s “ascent” that includes farming wheat as “where it all started to go wrong, becoming “history’s biggest fraud.”
Most significant, however, are the themes that surround digging through Bronowski’s secret treasure trove. Jamie allows Ava into the room and their discoveries are intriguing, horrific, and provide a path for research and writing that would reinstate Ava in her teaching position. In this latter part of the play, time again moves from past to present and the audience “listens in” to the past and the intrigue in the library of University of Hull where Bronowski assures George they “will not be disturbed by any students.” What were Bronowski and George working on? What did Jacob’s wife Rita (Olivia Hirst) know about the secret research and the collaboration with others involved in World War II projects? And what about the newspaper clipping Jamie and Ava find showing a “photograph of a young man, crying over his suitcase?”
Deception, dissemblance, disingenuous behavior, greed, self-serving and political motivation are examined in this important play. The drama raises rich questions that endure and demand answers – questions that are keenly relevant to the political machinations in Washington currently. Why do political leaders deceive, prevaricate, dissemble and engage the people they serve in disingenuous dialogue? What secrets lie at the heart of the political machine in American and globally? What “projects” are governments involved in to “solve” what they perceive to be the world’s “important problems? How will this part of the twenty-first century influence the “ascent of humankind?” The cast of “Secret Life of Humans” successfully grapples with these questions with the assistance of a splendid creative team. Jen McGinley’s set design, Catherine Webb’s lighting, and Zakk Hein’s projections draw the audience into the action with effects that are at once astounding and puzzling. “Secret Life of Humans” is worth the time. See it before its limited run ends.
SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS
The cast features Richard Delaney, Olivia Hirst, Andy McLeod, Andrew Strafford-Baker, and Stella Blue Taylor.
The design team includes Jen McGinley (set designer); Geoff Hense (lighting designer); Ronnie Dorsey (costume designer); Zakk Hein (projection designer); Yaiza Varona (composer and sound designer); and John Maddox (aerial designer). The Production Stage Manager is Raynelle Wright. Production photos by David Monteith Hodge and Richard Davenport.
“Secret Life of Humans” runs for a limited engagement through Sunday, July 1st, 2018. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Friday at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues). The single ticket price is $25.00 - $70.00 ($25.00 - $49.00 for 59E59 Members). Tickets are available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.59e59.org. Running time is 85 minutes without intermission.
Photo L-R: Andrew Strafford-Baker, Andy McLeod, Olivia Hirst, Stella Taylor, and Richard Delaney in “Secret Life of Humans” at 59E59 Theaters. Credit: Richard Davenport.