I like to think of Caryl Churchill as the Emily Dickinson of the theatre world. Her dialogue sounds like the staccato rhythms of speech punctuated by dashes. Characters interrupt each other, speak over each other, and generally leave others (often characters and audience alike) to decipher what they're actually talking about. Churchill's reputation is understandably great, as her hand has given the theatre plays like Top Girls, Cloud Nine, A Number, and Far Away, just to name a few.
All of this is well and good, but sitting in the Minetta Lane Theatre and watching her latest offering, New York Theatre Workshop's production of Love and Information, feels like an echo or a remix of a technique that at one point was unique and powerful. Though the excellent design, good performances, and trademark Churchill dialogue make this two-hour play interesting to watch, the word that comes to mind to describe the total effect is "unwieldy."
Director James MacDonald and set designer Miriam Buether previously worked together on Cock, a Mike Barlett play that played at the Duke theater on 42nd Street. I saw that production and loved it, and I see the same powerful aesthetic at work here. The set it breathtaking and Christopher Shutt's sound design adds to the effect of the jump-cut nature of the scenes. Yet I hesitate here, for the design was simultaneously too much for the play and my favorite part of the play.
What is this play about? Well, simply it is about love and information, both love as information and how we share information based on the kind of love we feel for the person with whom we're sharing information. In this way the play represents a kind of impressionist painting, with single brush strokes appearing in the form of snippets of various lives, taken together to create a whole feeling rather than complete story.
This works quite well in the beginning, but as the play goes on, the moments in between the scenes seem to stretch out, and I found myself wondering if we needed a sound cue longer than the scene that it preceded. I would say that if anyone other than Caryl Churchill had written this play, it would have been cut dramatically if it ever even made it to this stage of production. This is an unfortunate problem in the theatre, where established playwrights tend to pass work through venues with less dramaturgy and shaping than younger playwrights.
Love and Information is not a bad play, but it also not a great play. Rather it is something in between that has been written by someone who I consider a great playwright. It is a good concept in an unwieldy package. My first thought after it was finished is that it will make a great high school or college production staple, as it has a sizable cast and could be done with incredibly minimal design.
There are also moments in this play when you remember you're watching a Caryl Churchill piece. They occur when, in a few lines of dialogue that seem to say almost nothing, yet somehow draw an incredibly exacting picture of the lives of these characters. This play is full of these moments, but too full! We cannot absorb all of the nuances because the scenes keep coming and coming and do not let up. Too much of a good thing can exhaust an audience, and I felt others squirming as the play came to the middle.
Those of you who read me often know that I am always advocating for what's best for the art, for the play. In this particular instance, less would be much more, and would lead to much more Love and Information.