Is it possible for two people be irrevocably connected, regardless of action or distance? Can we ever really be certain about where our lives are headed? And can we ever grow as people without taking chances and committing to a course of action? These are just some of the issues tackled in Spooky Action at a Distance, an intriguing new production by MFA playwright Matthew Buckley Smith at The Catholic University of America.
Spooky Action takes its title from a debate between Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr about the theory of quantum entanglement – the idea that two particles can be linked in such a way that measurements or observations of one would have an instantaneous effect on the other. Einstein derided the concept of entanglement by calling it “spooky action at a distance” and refusing the possibility of faster-than-light transfer of information. Einstein and others in his camp believed that there must instead be some kind of hidden variable to account for the changes. (This is an amazing simplification of these theories, but don’t worry if you’re not up to speed on your physics controversies; the play teaches you anything you might need to know, and manages to do so in a way that both entertains and advances the plot.)
That scientific conflict is the background for the play just as much, if not more than the Vietnam War looming in the background. Simon (Grant Cloyd) is a draft-dodging graduate student working at the physics lab at Berkeley in 1971. He falls in with Glenn (Kiernan McGowan), the manager and bartender at a local dive called The Wave, and an unlikely friendship results. Glenn asks Simon to tutor his wife Frankie (Amie Cazel) in physics, and a love triangle develops. There are the usual complications: Glenn is two-timing his wife with a waitress at the bar, and Frankie turns out to be the beautiful stranger that Simon met on campus and who Glenn has encouraged him to pursue.
But while the setup may seem fairly standard, Spooky Action is not. In an homage to the scientific debate that permeates, Smith has littere d his play with thought experiments – moments where current action, flashbacks, and alternative realities collide. Some are simple, as when Glenn and Simon review and critique Simon’s disastrous encounter with the beautiful stranger. Others are illuminating, like Simon’s explaining the entanglement issue to Frankie. And by the end of the play, we learn that these experiments can also be emotionally devastating. In some ways, Spooky Action is at its best when things are difficult, and the direction (by Jerry Whiddon) follows suit. The transitions can seem long and unnecessary, and the actors are sometimes oddly obstructed by the extremely minimal set. But when three levels of reality start colliding in the thought experiment scenes, you’d swear that a maestro’s hand is at work guiding the actors.
As the main character, Grant Cloyd is in some ways at the mercy of the script. When he spends the early scenes serving as the obtuse punching bag for the more socially adept characters, Cloyd’s Simon seems like an escapee from the set of The Big Bang Theory. It’s all played for laughs without any substance. But during the thought experiments and science lessons, Cloyd demonstrates an enthusiasm for physics that makes Simon magnificent without losing sight of the awkwardness that makes him so touching. As Simon grows as a person, Cloyd is given the necessary space to act instead of present a (admittedly funny) caricature. Cloyd manages to convince the audience that naivete lost requires innocence lost, but there’s a certain wistfulness for the simplicity that Simon’s life used to have.
As Glenn, Kiernan McGowan is the anchor holding Spooky Action together. While the play may be Simon’s story, it’s Glenn who sets events in motion and who has the most at stake throughout the evening. At turns jocular and menacing, McGowan has the difficult task of alternating between a likeable antagonist and difficult friend. He’s the stumbling block to Simon’s romantic ambitions, but also the catalyst for most of Simon’s emotional growth. The character is a presence in the room even when Simon and Frankie are alone together, and McGowan presents him as the kind of larger than life – but real – person capable of pulling others into that kind of orbit. Perhaps even more impressive is the way that McGowan manages to radiate intensity on command. You can’t always be sure when Glenn is kidding around with Simon, but you know damn well when he’s serious.
The tempestuous relationship between Simon and Glenn suggests that what we’re watching is a love triangle between two men; in the end, Spooky Action isn’t really Frankie’s play. And while the script makes clear this isn’t an accident (the male characters joke about their relationship), the side effect is that Cazel doesn’t have enough opportunities to show off her obvious talent. While we get to see the Frankie and Simon’s developing relationship, we never have a real chance to see Frankie with her husband. Do the two even try and reach each other anymore? What could McGowan and Cazel have shown us about their characters with more of a chance to interact? Cazel manages to pack years of Frankie’s life into a few emotional moments towards the end of the play – a pained look, a hard decision – and those bursts make me wish more of the play was spent with Frankie as subject rather than object.
The script can be a little pat at times, with the direct one-to-one correspondence of physics concepts to character relations often leaving me thinking, “Yes, I see what you’re doing there.” When Simon refers to the mystery woman on campus as “the hidden variable,” it becomes painfully obvious that all of the statements and questions about physics in the play are also about people. The piece is extremely clever, both conceptually and in its writing, but also goes out of its way to make sure you know it. Essentially, the biggest problem with the show is that Smith’s text doesn’t trust that it’s as good as it is. For instance, the characters are genuinely funny when they tease and joke with each other, but the script is also packed with sitcom-y one-liners and hilarious verbal misunderstandings. All of that is funny, yes, but it seems unnecessary. My gut feeling is that the play should be a comedic drama but wound up being a dramatic comedy. Spooky Action is at its best when it is most complicated: the conversational and scientific thought experiments, the moments of emotional intensity, and the scenes where the characters veer away from cliched resolutions. Spooky Action at a Distance is a promising work, and I hope it has a long life outside of its current run at CUA.
Running Time: 90 minutes long, with no intermission.
Spooky Action at a Distance plays through March 24, 2013 at The Catholic University of America’s Callan Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road, N.E. in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at 202-319-4000, or purchase them online.